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The Happening

June 17, 2008

My mate Nick has, for a couple of years now, been running a 6-weekly event called the Monster Night. It’s an entertaining, high concept evening where a bunch of pals watch three, mostly horror, movies that we haven’t seen before, or at least not for many years. The remit is simple. The very good need not be considered: here we want 1950s Japanese sci-fi (usually starring one American actor who may have had a speaking part in a film you’ve heard about); 1970s full-on Italian carnivals of gore; 1980s slasher movies that never had a cinematic release; crappy 1990s UK horror films that even Xtro would look down on with justified contempt. This is a celebration of all that’s not even good enough to be mediocre, and we love it. Who can forget the classic moment at the end of Twitch of the Death Nerve when two children we’ve not been told about turn up out of the blue and kill the main actors, and then start laughing uncontrollably? Who doesn’t look back fondly on Rhona Cameron’s cruel demise in the dismal Funny Man? Who can even remember the absurd ending to the soporific Demons of Ludlow? I can’t, I was asleep, along with everyone else.

All we ask is bad acting, a bit of nubile running and screaming from some long-gone Page 3 stunna, a splash of gore and lots of pizza and beer. Quality is not essential, or even desired. And that’s why, in ten years or so, M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening will probably make an appearance somewhere between Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Inseminoid Girl.

The Happening has a lot in common with many of the movies we’ve giggled over recently, not least an on-the-back of a beer mat simple plot, an awful and pretentious script several drafts short of comprehensible, woeful acting, and a dispiriting final sense of Is That It?

What it doesn’t share with these entertaining slices of rubbish is that they don’t make you physically violent with rage and fury as you sit through them.

Shyamalan’s films have relied on twist endings ever since The Sixth Sense turned its audience upside down with ghoulish glee almost ten years ago. Unbreakable has arguably a better and more satisfying switch-around, but nevertheless, it seemed that the director had painted himself into a corner, creating a Twist genre all his own. The Happening, I can only conclude, is his attempt to break away from that concept in the most ironic way possible, by turning the whole idea on its head and having The Best Part in the first three minutes. The rest just ambling away into dull exposition and self-reverential hooey.

The opening sequence is remarkable. It’s 8.33 on a fine New York morning, and we’re in Central Park. The good people of the Big Apple are busying themselves with keep fit regimes, school runs, or getting to work. And then they all stop, a scream is heard in the distance and, inexplicably, they all begin to die by their own hand. It’s terrifically well done and extraordinarily creepy, which may go part way to explaining why the same scene is, shamefully, repeated almost identically not once, but twice, later on.

From that opening moment, and I don’t feel at all mean in saying this, and will explain why later, it is immediately down hill. Immediately. Get that? Immediately. For, following a well-executed creepy and disorienting slice of proper theatre, we are introduced to Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) who will be our hero for the evening. Elliot, and this needs to be hammered home repeatedly, is a Science Teacher (capital ‘T’ there). If Jim Royle were watching this, he’d no doubt opine ‘Science Teacher My Arse’, and I’d be forced to agree with him. Elliot is a Science Teacher in the same sense that Robert Mugabe is a human being. They might look like they’re made of the correct genetic material (Wahlberg even wears a tank top, and at one point says ‘whom’, how teacher-y is that?), but beyond looks they’re nowhere near accomplished enough to convince.

In the second scene, Elliot is holding a Natural History class that is so infuriatingly anti-science, waffly and woolly that it makes you want to thump him very hard between the eyes. The essence of this irritation is a discussion where Elliot suggests that science can only ever provide theories for why things happen, but that ultimately we just have to accept that ‘stuff’ occurs because it’s an unknowable act of nature. Really. He says that. Shyamalan then almost does the hitting for you with the lens; there are innumerable super close-ups of Elliot’s inquisitive mush (and who wouldn’t remain baffled when ‘just because’ is your mantra?), his brow furrowed and his little piggy eyes peering inquisitively out of his screwed up potato-y face. His wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel), suffers from the same affliction, her first scene being an ultra close examination of her puzzled features. These occur throughout and I guess that Shyamalan is trying to tell us that these people are seriously confused.

And so are we. What exactly is this Happening that we’re all stuck in the movie auditorium to see? Why are people killing themselves? Why is everyone dying in increasingly silly ways? Why does Elliot talk like that? What is the point of John Leguizamo’s character? Didn’t he, surely, have a much bigger part but for some sensible studio exec blue-pencilling it because people simply wouldn’t put up with more than 90 minutes of this shit? Why am I here? Why have I wasted £7.50 on some meandering, preachy, pompous bullshit that’s determined to give me the most self-damaging ecological down-talking lesson I’ve ever heard?

The reason for the Happening is easily gleaned from the briefest of forays into the film. Read a review, and there it is, go to the movie’s official site, and there it is. When the theory (although, hey, right? right?) is posited about 30 minutes in, as people flee the city and head into the countryside, that’s the end of any development plot-wise, and the Happening as it stands becomes a non-event. Wait for a twist and you’ll be sadly disappointed, wait for a moment of clarity and you’ll be seriously disappointed; all that we have here is a rapidly diminishing cast of characters – although how you kill yourself in an open field with no weapons or instruments of any kind is never really shown – and a speedily rising level of patronising guff.

Two jarring gear changes almost provide the promise of salvation, but they are no more than sad set-pieces placed before us to ‘make us think’. In one, Elliot leads his gang into a model Dream Home where everything is made out of plastic, and the billboard shouts “You Deserve This!” Geddit? I’ll be charitable and suggest that clear boomshot is intended as further proof that we’re all living in an artificial world and we’ve brought this on ourselves. In the second, clunky, sequence, the group impose themselves on a paranoid old lady who is convinced they mean to murder her. At this point I almost expected her to be The Answer for all the ills that have befallen these ‘normal’ folk up until now (we are, we’re told, in the very epicentre of the mass disturbances and deaths) but this is not explored at all and is left to fizzle out pointlessly.

No, there is nothing Happening here. As we reach the end, and our small company of hopeless idiots sit pathetically in a basement waiting for the end, we drift into a coda of such breathtaking pointlessness that the only thing that is left for us to do is to stare at the screen and think, “is that really it?” More heartfelt and robust messages of irritation were levelled at the screen than that, however, as I left, I can assure you. As I got up, I thought of that old Buffalo Springfield song, “Something’s Happening Here ….What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear”. Well, it’s clear all right, it’s a man trying to mesmerise us, and falling short.

Poorly acted, poorly executed and incompetent at almost every point, bar that opening sequence, this is Une Grande Idée with nothing extra to add, nothing behind it but a beermat’s worth of thoughts, and no considered follow-up. It just doesn’t work. None of the pieces click. It’s empty and vacuous and all the worse for that, because it thinks it’s important and meaningful.

You know what? Maybe The Happening won’t be on a future Monster Night agenda. I just don’t think it’s up to our usual standard.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 17, 2008 1:15 pm

    Amner.

    “Self-reverential hooey” ??

    It’s classic phrasing like this that cracks my shyte up and keeps me coming back again and again.

    Love it, love it. ;^D

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