M. Night Shyamalan never really made violent horror movies. He’s uncomfortable with violence, and most of his movies reflect this discomfort by cutting away from the violence or excluding it altogether. His breakout film, The Sixth Sense, uses his and our aversion to horrific violence to create a twist built upon the desire we have for continuity. Instead of showing us the violence inherent in horror movies, most of Shyamalan’s thrillers rely on the potential for that violence lurking around the corner, in the background, or in the woods. Even his 2015 film, The Visit, he relies on tension built by the expectations of doddering old people and something weird going on.
The Happening is M. Night Shyamalan’s foray into R-Rated violence. And, boy is he not comfortable with it at all. The violence in The Happening isn’t even person-to-person violence. It’s a string of suicides using a variety of imaginatively silly manners that allow a range of explicit graphic details. At the beginning, some lady stabs herself with a knitting needle, but then some people fall bloodlessly from a construction site. There is no twist reason in The Happening. This is all because of a mysterious suicide toxin released by the plants to cause people to kill themselves. The plants have decided, en masse, that they’re fed up with the pollution and now we all have to die.
Though the conceit is a bit thin and silly, the reason The Happening stays on many cult film lovers lists is just how uncomfortable Shyamalan is with his own movie, and the lengths he goes to avoid stabbing the audience in the soul. After we see a graphic suicide by lion, Shyamalan soothes us with a couple of hot-dog-obsessed weirdos who carry around binoculars they use to spy on their neighbors. To distract us from the bodies hanging in the trees, Shyamalan has the math teacher (John Leguizamo) try to soothe us by giving us a pop math quiz about exponential equations. Shortly after a bunch of people die, Mark Wahlberg, a science teacher who hilariously tells his students that things happen for no reason, talks to a plastic tree at a model home to beg for his life.
This would all be amusing if Shyamalan wasn’t so deadly serious about it. And, because he’s so serious about his ridiculous plot points, the seriousness takes on a black comedy effect. Zooey Deschanel (500 Days of Summer) feels extremely guilty for sharing tiramisu with a romantic co-worker, which blows up into a big subplot for the whole movie…over tiramisu. John Leguizamo, the only actor who truly knows what movie he’s in, constantly shoots her looks that condemn her for having tiramisu with a guy. By the time you get to the military guy whose idea of swearing is saying “Cheese and Crackers,” the whole audience is rolling in aisles.
This dichotomy of graphic violence and childlike innocence gives this R-rated movie an identity crisis. Is it trying to be the adult horror movie it wants to be, or is it pure naivete on full display? Is Shyamalan putting us on, or does he truly mean all of this? Whatever it is, this profoundly silly movie is a must watch for any lovers of the true bafflements of the 00s.
The Happening airs at 4:50am on Sunday, March 5 on HBO