Trees set out to off mankind, poisoning our cities with airborne neurotoxins that make people smash their heads through glass or hurl themselves off buildings and into traffic, sending survivors scampering into the countryside and leading a whole lot of viewers to wonder whether they’re supposed to take any of this seriously. The movie in question is The Happening, an homage to kooky drive-in sci-fi played inconsistently straight, often cited as exhibit A in the case against M. Night Shyamalan. The writer-director-producer had played with creature-feature material before, in his earlier (and much better received) Signs, a movie that split the difference between alien and home invasion by imagining extraterrestrials as intruders casing a rural house. In Signs, the Hess family—a former Episcopalian priest, his two kids, and his loser brother—are terrorized by noseless green bogeymen, and also by the stuff of an earlier generation’s B movies: a picture of a flying saucer vaporizing the residents of house just like theirs, an army recruiter character who seems to have wandered in from a Cold War cheapie, and so on. Signs is a religious film, and so is The Happening, on a certain level. But we’ll get to that later.
In the past year, Shyamalan’s reputation has bounced back a little, thanks to the success of his most recent film, The Visit, a creative found-footage horror flick, self-financed on a small budget. But let’s be real here: Barring some kind of wider cultural shift, Shyamalan will never command as much attention and goodwill as he did around the turn of the century, when he was widely praised as the next something-or-other of American cinema on the strength of The Sixth Sense, his acclaimed and very popular third feature. (The earlier Praying With Anger and Wide Awake are obscure enough that a lot of folks assume that The Sixth Sense was his debut; both deal with religious values, by the way.) His reputation slipped with every subsequent film, at first in tiny increments, and then steeply, with The Happening marking the point of no return; released in the summer of 2008, it was a commercial success, but was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews, even in this storied publication. The fact that the movie even managed to make money speaks to the cachet Shyamalan had with the wider movie-going public, because The Happening is very weird, and maybe too thorough at imitating its sources for its own good.
Patterned on the B movies of the early atomic age, the best of which could be sophisticated in everything except premise and acting (exception: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), the movie swaps out radiation for climate change, but otherwise keeps to the template, complete with an ending in which a man in a suit explains everything that happened, but not really. It’s a disaster movie with no large-scale scenes of destruction, which makes it seem absurd or surreal, especially when you factor in Shyamalan’s fixation on the banal Americana of Northeastern industrial backcountry: Amtrak trains, nuclear power plants, wood-sided five-doors. Sometimes, it mimics the goofiness of authentic ’50s B movies; this is one of those cases where the miscasting—namely, Mark Wahlberg as a Philadelphia science teacher who looks and talks like a football coach who’s been forced to sub sex ed—seems at least partly intentional. And yet, even with its non sequitur references to food (tiramisu, hot dogs, “lemon drink,” etc.) and its winks of self-parody (e.g., Wahlberg talking to a plastic plant), The Happening is a movie that a lot of people presume is trying and failing to be taken seriously. And maybe it is.
On the one hand, it’s basically re-skinning tropes from the nuclear anxiety era, and the result seems just as silly as the threat of irradiated animals did to Joe Smartass in the mid-1950s. On the other, it’s a much more sincere horror film than it lets on, regardless of whether you take it as a campy (but very deliberate) B movie pastiche or just a really dumb film. But let’s address the question of intentionality first, because Shyamalan controls the shit out of The Happening—in every respect except the acting of the leads. Unusually for the genre, the movie is set mostly in open areas and in daylight; unable to corner the characters or hide a threat in darkness, Shyamalan opts for pure form, in his Spielberg-restrained-by-arthouse style. Perhaps this is one of those cases where a filmmaker invents a problem so that they can prove themselves by directing their way out. (The climax of Signs—in which almost all of the action is implied or handled obliquely—comes to mind.)
The result is that the so-called scares in The Happening are largely abstract and standalone. More often than not, these are carefully staged and timed shots of random people killing themselves: A long take of a gun being passed from suicide to suicide, an eerie low angle of workers nonchalantly tumbling from the top of a constructions site, a telephoto shot of man lying down in front of a lawnmower, a driver’s POV of a tree tunnel avenue where the bodies of the hanged dangle like gourds. And it’s not hard to make a case for the movie on form alone. Though his taste for somber lighting, Steadicam shots, and slow zooms skews New Hollywood—bolstered here by the ’70s bona fides of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who shot Badlands and Melvin And Howard, among others—Shyamalan is more viewer-perspective classicist than aesthete. There’s always a clear reason for why something is in the frame or why it isn’t, and you can all but see the storyboard pencil marks under every camera movement. Something this confidently made has to have its reasons. And what about the epilogue, which plays like a parody of tidy tie-up closures, and is the only downbeat ending of Shyamalan’s career?
For someone raised Hindu, Shyamalan is unusually fixated on Christianity and Christian themes; the fact that he spent his childhood and teen years in Catholic and Episcopalian private schools probably has something to do with it. This is the part where this column tells you that The Happening is a spiritual horror film. Or at least it’s a movie about an existential fear that’s classified as religious in the Christian sense, but which the film translates into the vulgate of Mark Wahlberg reaction shots. Trees aren’t scary, though neither are houses, kitchen knives, or most objects of horror. What’s supposed to be scary—and isn’t for some folks—is the idea that human beings are only ever responding to environmental stimuli and that free will is just an illusion. Which raises the question: Is The Happening actually too serious? Shyamalan, a verified cornball, likes the silly stuff of genre fiction too much to resist interjecting it into somber environments. (See: The text that flashes on screen at the very end of Unbreakable.) And though The Happening is mostly intentional camp, it has a buried current of disquiet.
Which is where we circle back to Signs, the earlier, better-acted, generally more well-liked Shyamalan movie that happens to be overtly religious. The thing that actually makes Signs’ plot tick isn’t an alien invasion, but the belief that there’s such a thing as the divine, a protective higher power that is always offering help in code. Similarly, The Happening’s trees don’t actually matter; the real plot mechanic is that people do whatever chemicals tell them. In order for the tree nonsense to happen, this has to be presumed to be true, and on a religious level, it’s scary. Shyamalan’s two most widely admired movies, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, both presume cosmic meaning behind the relationships between their main characters, though in both cases, they withhold the ramifications until the last minute. But in The Happening, everything is premised on the assumption that life is meaningless—a deep anxiety that informs the movie’s abstracted scare scenarios, but is also hidden behind camp. It’s not incoherent, but it’s often hard to read. It’s a genuine curio, not entirely successful, and if you subscribe to the old auteurist line of movies being both expressions and entertainment objects, it’s both too self-consciously silly and too personal to dismiss.
Next guest: We leap back into the Hong Kong film industry of the late 1950s for Air Hostess, a bright, mesmerizingly upbeat musical romance about how great it is to work for an airline.