Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.
Release Date: June 13th, 2008 MPAA Rating: R
Director: M. Night Shyamalan Actors: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr.
hroughout M. Night Shyamalan’s career, the director has always handled the building of suspense with a gifted intuition. In “The Happening,” the suspense is still present in moderate doses, but his notions of terror just don’t complement his attention to buildup. As each project concludes, his concepts of horror gradually diminish, with psychological thrills getting replaced with more generic and less inspired methods for creating scares. Plus, the twist-endings are becoming so commonplace that they’re anything but surprising.
A vicious chemical attack occurs in New York City and quickly spreads to neighboring states, causing mass hysteria and countless deaths. It’s suspected that terrorists have unleashed an airborne neurotoxin that has the extreme influence of forcing those affected to become uncontrollably suicidal. Of the few survivors able to get clear of the infected area, science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his troubled wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) must overcome their personal dilemmas to save those whose lives have been entrusted to them.
With Shyamalan’s clever setups and unique ideas for suspense, it would seem that resorting to more savage visuals is beneath the director’s modus operandi. Yet “The Happening” is rated R for violent and disturbing images, despite the fact that the rampant suicides never really require such visceral exhibitions, and they barely utilize the boundaries the rating offers. The film is neither overly bloody nor excessively brutal, while the gore fails to enhance the scares. In Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” brief violence was used to supplement the inherent terror of a creature not synonymous with horror spontaneously becoming a nightmarish purveyor of fear. Shyamalan attempts to copy this strategy with his own unusual villain, but fails to use the laxer censorship to his advantage.
Again the director has filled his cast with star power, as Mark Wahlberg easily portrays the quick-thinking science teacher tasked with protecting his makeshift family. Flimsy dialogue can’t keep the actor from bringing an engaging character to life. Zooey Deschanel creates an interesting counterpart, though her role never gains the required screentime to flesh out a more complex relationship with her costar, which becomes crucial toward the climax. Almost all of the supporting characters receive such little attention from the camera that their efforts are essentially wasted. Both John Leguizamo’s Julian, a friend along for the ride, and Betty Buckley’s infinitely creepy Mrs. Jones, an isolated woman unaware of the current catastrophe, never fully realize their potential in the fleeting amount of time they’re given.
While several scenes showcase the director’s admirable grasp on roller-coaster thrills, his visions of true fear have become as clouded as “The Happening’s” opening credits. The production as a whole lacks the usual nail-biting intrigue the director’s early filmography forecasted, though his creative longevity is increasingly leaning toward that of a one-trick pony. And amping up the film’s display of bloodletting to earn a harsher MPAA rating has done little to increase the actual terror committed to the screen, leaving audiences with what is likely the first ever public service announcement horror film.
– The Massie Twins