M. Night Shyamalan was the worst director in the world until he wasn’t, the butt of endless jokes until he wasn’t, and a talentless hack who made two good films twenty years ago by fluke until he wasn’t. He spent almost a decade in the critical doghouse from 2006’s Lady in the Water until his first tentative steps towards redemption with 2015’s The Visit. Now, he’s back on top thanks to the incredible success of Split, which was lauded by critics as a welcome return to form and made a tidy profit somewhere in the region of a quarter of a billion dollars on a budget of less than ten million.
Here’s the problem: Split is an awful pile of crap. Worst still, he already made the movie that critics seem to think Split is – a great B-movie directed in the style of Hitchcock – nine years ago. Almost universally panned at the time, its reputation has only grown worse over the years, largely, I suspect, due to people on the Internet who’ve definitely never seen it using it as a cheap punchline. But what if it’s not one of the worst movies ever made? What if it’s sincerely enjoyable and great?
I’m not the first person to defend this movie, but I’m one of the few whose praise is full-throated and unapologetic. No caveats, no cop-outs. I think it’s a near-perfect execution of its concept and I wish I could take away all the acclaim that others have heaped on Split and give it to this movie instead.
I love The Happening.
If you think it’s supposed to be a serious movie, The Happening is burdened with a ridiculous premise. If you think it’s a deliberate attempt to make a B-movie – if you think its premise is supposed to be laughable – it has a great premise. At the time of its release, The Happening was assumed to be a serious movie, an ecological disaster movie in the vein of The Day After Tomorrow, but with a good director who’d only made one atrocious movie at that point, Lady in the Water (it’s rarely recalled now that most contemporary reviews of Signs were positive and reviews of The Village were mixed, with negative responses often limited to the ending alone). The Happening was supposed to chill you to the bone and make you think about how we’ve failed as the custodians of our world, so when it was goofy and sloppy, it was largely judged a failure by critics who’d made an assumption about what kind of movie it was supposed to be and measured its worth against the imaginary movie they expected instead of reconsidering their assumptions and judging the movie on its own merits. A few critics recognised it for what it was at the time and praised it on those grounds, but even a few of its defenders praised it as a serious movie about serious themes, which is even crazier than those who damned it as a failed attempt at a serious movie about serious themes. It’s become more of a subject of debate among critics in the years since, which is the weirdest development of all because the intentionality of The Happening is so obvious that the debate about it is just baffling.
I’m not usually one to reach for authorial statements, but Shyamalan described the film as “a paranoia movie from the 1960s on the lines of ‘The Birds’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’” when it was announced, and said “We’re making an excellent B movie, that’s our goal” shortly before its release. Even if that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t matter – the entire phenomenon of cult celebration of B-movies that are failures by the standard of conventional filmmaking is based on enjoying movies because of what they are and not what they were supposed to be. Rarely does a B-movie endure in the zeitgeist because it’s a genuinely great film that someone was able to make with the tiny budget of a B-movie. For the most part, it’s films that were attempts – often very sincere and heartfelt attempts – to execute a vision with no money and bad actors, attempts that failed so spectacularly that it created unintentional comedy. Regardless of whether The Happening is supposed to be silly and funny and dumb, it is, and if it’s enjoyable on that level, it doesn’t matter whether it was intentional or not. The movie exists as it does, not as it was dreamed.
The Happening is about plants making people commit suicide.
Some have called it the dumbest twist of any film by M. Night Shyamalan, but even if it wasn’t an intentionally dumb premise, it’s the premise, not a twist – implied from the opening shot of the film, discussed by the characters as a possible explanation for what’s happening at an early point and confirmed almost exactly halfway through the movie.
Our heroes are a high school science teacher called Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who have marital problems. To describe the plot in much detail would do it a disservice. Most of the film is just the characters in various forms of transportation as they try to escape the disaster zone. They talk about stuff. Occasionally, they get out of their vehicles and run away from the wind.
The magic of The Happening is in the way it tells its dumb boring story, a combination of three key elements: a well-structured script full of hilariously bad dialogue, some of the most wrong-footed performances by any actors in any film ever and excellent work in every other part of the movie. These first two elements are the most well-known, as a quick search on YouTube can confirm. Mark Wahlberg produces the bulk of the film’s most iconic moments, not just because he plays the lead, but because he seems to be the only person in the cast who has no idea how silly the script is and performs with a sincerity that would be impressive in almost any other movie. Just watch his commitment and attention to physical detail in any of these scenes:
Zooey Deschanel isn’t quite as good, perhaps because she’s more self-aware than Mark Wahlberg and can’t deliver the schlocky lines with his relentless conviction. The film is occasionally hindered by moments where she seems unable to commit – never in the realm of, say, Harrison Ford’s voiceover from the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, which he deliberately read as poorly as possible in the hope it wouldn’t be used, but there are definitely points where you can hear the sigh buried in her voice. Still, she pulls off my favourite moment in the film perfectly: Alma points at a car that both she and Elliot are watching pull up right next to them, literally less than three feet from where they’re standing, and turns to Elliot and says “There’s a car”. I’ll never forget that scene because it was the moment I realised I was watching a deliberately silly movie – it was a pitch-perfect recreation of the sloppy writing I’d seen in dozens of atomic-age B-movies on TCM when I was younger, like The Killer Shrews or The Mole People. The rest of the movie proceeds to lay it on with more B-movie tropes: the stranger who picks the heroes up in his car just happens to run a plant nursery and immediately explains his theory that the plants are behind it all; the rest of the movie takes place on back roads and open fields and old rural houses, the kind of locations common to B-movies with budgets too small to rent out decent sets; the heroes end up in the home of a crazy old coot, and the film ends with a newscast that explains the events and the heavy-handed moral message we should all take from them – stop killing the planet, or the planet will kill us.
This seriousness of theme – and it is serious, however numb to it we’ve become by the sheer length of time we’ve lived with this emergency – might explain why so many critics took the film completely seriously on release, even in some of the positive reviews. Roger Ebert called it a “quietly realistic” and “oddly touching” movie that was “too thoughtful for the summer season” and said “[t]he performances by Wahlberg and Deschanel bring a quiet dignity to their characters”. I love The Happening, but I would never accuse it of any of those things: it’s wacky and dumb and funny and often very scary, which is where the excellence of every part of the film that’s not the dialogue or the performances is most prominent.
The first line of dialogue we hear in the film is “I forgot where I am”, delivered right on the cut before we have any chance to contextualise it. We catch up to the scene – two women sitting on a bench in Central Park – just as her friend responds “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl”. It’s only about halfway through that line that you’re able to catch up with what’s happening – they’re reading the same book, and the first woman lost her place. Before that realisation, all your brain is able to absorb is “I forget where I am” / “You’re at the place where the killers meet” and it’s an unnerving pair of lines to open a film with, especially when they’re thrust on you so suddenly and delivered so casually by the two characters.
Just as you think you have your bearings, someone screams in the distance. One of the women reacts, asking her friend if she heard it. The camera pans over people walking through the park and some teenagers playing volleyball in the distance, then cuts back to the concerned woman. “That’s funny,” she says. “It’s weird, those people look like they’re clawing at themselves…is that blood?” We never see the people she’s looking at. Instead the camera cuts back and forth between shots of her face and a series of wide shots of different areas of the park, where everyone is either perfectly still, or walking shakily backwards for some reason. The woman asks her friend if she’s seeing this. Her friend is unresponsive for a minute, then asks “What page was I on?” The camera holds on her as she stares into the middle distance. She takes a steel hair stick from her bun and drives it into her neck so quietly and effortlessly that her concerned friend never even notices.
The whole sequence is genuinely horrifying, but as it goes on, it also starts to become a little funny, and that’s true of most scenes of horror in The Happening. They’re shot with a comic rhythm – right after the scene in Central Park, we cut to a construction site where men start jumping from the top of the building. It’s awful and even affecting: the site manager comes across as truly shocked and upset at what’s happened, and it stays horrifying as the second body hits the ground, and the third body hits the ground, and even as the fourth body hits the ground, but when it cuts to a low-angle shot of one man after another walking off the edge, you feel a laugh building up just before it cuts to a classroom to introduce us to Elliot.
Later, a cop in a traffic jam pulls out his gun and shoots himself in the head. In a long tracking shot at shin height, a taxi driver climbs out of his car to pick up the cop’s gun. He walks forward a few steps and shoots himself in the head. He drops the gun in sight of a bystander, and everything is still for a couple of seconds. Then she walks over to pick up the gun – the pause before the payoff turns it into a punchline and once again, just as you feel the horror turn to laughter, it cuts to a new scene.
Horror and humour are deeply related on both a social and emotional level – we can ostracise and stigmatise through both fear and mockery, and both screams and laughs are the release at the end of a mounting tension. Shyamalan is very interested in exploring how the two can muddle together and how jumping suddenly from one to the other can manipulate our perspective and expectations. He elevates it to an art form in The Visit and reduces it to its most base vulgar ends in Split, but it finds its first expression in The Happening, where he uses the scenes of horror to prime the viewer to laugh at the scenes between them. The effect is wonderful, and heightened even more by the incongruity between the pristine quality of the cinematography, score, editing and structure, and the cultivated shit of the acting and dialogue.
The Happening isn’t M. Night Shyamalan’s best film – only The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or The Visit could credibly claim that title – but nor is it one of his failures. I couldn’t disagree more with Roger Ebert’s judgement that it was too “thoughtful” for a summer blockbuster, but it’s probably too clever, with its appeals to a niche interest in old-fashioned B-movies and intentional “badness”. I can’t help but think The Happening would’ve been better-received as an independent film, especially since that seems to be the case with his most recent film. Split is the last movie in the world I’d want to spur a reconsideration or rehabilitation of M. Night Shyamalan, but if it’s begun anyway, I hope more people will give The Happening a second chance with an open mind so they can experience its peculiar delights. Scenes of people calmly committing suicide that blur the line between horror and humour, Betty Buckley’s hammy performance as a cantankerous old recluse, the gorgeous score by James Newton Howard, the surrealism and absurdity of people running in terror from the wind, the beautiful cinematography by Tak Fujimoto and the sheer delight of a film that keeps you on your toes.
Where else can you find movie magic like this?