Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Happening (2008)

M. Night Shyamalan is a name that comes with a lot of baggage.  He shot to stardom on the success of The Sixth Sense.  People loved the movie.  He followed it up with Unbreakable and Signs, both movies that people enjoyed.  His career took a downward slide after that.  Something about his filmmaking produced movies that have been negatively received.  Either his talent faded or he was given more creative freedom which weakened the overall product.

One movie from this downward slide was The Happening.  The 2008 horror movie played more like a dark comedy than anything scary.  It was about a science teacher named Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) trying to help his estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) escape an attack that caused people to commit suicide.  They travelled across Pennsylvania looking for safety.

The thing about The Happening is that, although a terrible movie, it is still highly enjoyable for the weird choices that M. Night Shyamalan made.  There are moments that shouldn’t be in any movie that managed to find a place in this one.  They could be things that add to the runtime without adding a single thing to the storyline (I can think of a few), or it could be something completely ridiculous that seems like it should be in a comedy (there are many).  The Happening presents everything so seriously that it’s hard to imagine these are legitimate jokes.  These moments will make up this post. 

The following are moments that were included in the movie.  If you haven’t seen The Happening, you might think that I’m joking when I bring up these points.  I’m not joking.  As unbelievable as these are, they exist.  Sit back and enjoy what these moments are.  I’ll be as astonished as you that these were included.

The Classroom Scene
The story of Elliot began in as he taught his science class about the disappearance of bees.  He pointed out his looks of one student to get the kid to answer a question.  It wasn’t a particularly bad teaching style.  He made it so that the kids would be on his level rather than droning on about the lesson.  He was your basic movie or television teacher; the one inserted to be what we all want out of the people that teach us the world basics.  That part was a good decision, aside from maybe picking on the guy for his looks.

What stood out was a moment at the end of the scene that felt unnecessary.  The lesson helped to establish Elliot as a character, as well as Mark Wahlberg in the role.  When the students were leaving, Elliot called out to them.  “Hey guys,” he said in the patented Mark Wahlberg nice guy light voice.  A few of the students turned around in the doorway to look in his direction.  He looked back for a few seconds before shaking his head slightly and continuing, “Nevermind.”

Why was this in the movie?  The entire interaction took about ten seconds.  Maybe less than that.  It was completely unnecessary.  The interaction did not build character in any way whatsoever.  Elliot never dwelled on what happened to his students.  He never even thought about the moment again.  None of the students came back later in the movie.  It was a moment of uselessness that added ten seconds to a movie that did not need it.

Alan Ruck
While at school, the teachers met up to discuss what might be going on.  The main speaker was none other than Alan Ruck, the best friend from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  This was the only scene in the movie in which he appeared.  It was not an important role.  There were bigger roles with unrecognizable actors. 

I’m not sure why Alan Ruck played this character.  It did nothing for his career.  There couldn’t have been a reason for him to want to pop up in an M. Night Shyamalan movie for about a minute and a half.  He wasn’t in any of Shyamalan’s previous movies.  If he wanted to work with Shyamalan, I’m sure he could have gotten a bigger role.  It just seemed like this was the wrong role for him.  I’m not sure how or why this happened.

Hot Dogs
One of the more infamous scenes in The Happening is the greenhouse scene.  After fleeing Philadelphia and being stranded in a small town called Filbert, Elliot and his group were looking for a safe way to continue their journey.  They come upon a friendly couple who had space in their vehicle.  The couple wanted to stop off at their home first to grab a few provisions before heading off into the unknown.  The group (sans Julian, who joins another group to find his wife) went to this couple’s home.

At the home there was a greenhouse.  The wife went into the house to grab some food and stuff while the husband took Elliot, Alma, and Jess into the greenhouse.  He explained the whole plot of the movie in this scene.  He told the group about plants and the defense mechanisms that they use to get rid of predators.  He also said that being friendly with plants will make them friendlier to you.  This is all because plants are living, breathing organisms.  Just like animals.

The plant conversation wasn’t the strangest thing that happened in this scene.  There was another, quicker conversation that took place.  The man looked at Elliot and Alma and asked if they liked hot dogs.  You see, the food that his wife went into the house to get was hot dogs.  Elliot and Alma didn’t seem too excited about the prospect of eating lots of hot dogs.  That didn’t deter the man.  He went on about hot dogs and how great they are.  They have a cool shape and they have protein.  He likes to have mustard on his hot dogs.  It’s a scene of important dialogue (the plot) surrounded by something insane and completely irrelevant (hot dogs).

Julian and Elliot were best friends.  They wanted to travel together to escape the suicide epidemic in Philadelphia.  They worked at the same school.  Elliot was the science teacher and Julian was the math teacher.  Though Elliot didn’t use his science expertise too often in The Happening, Julian was always trying to turn everything into math.  That was how he connected with people.  He used his knowledge of mathematics to soothe them in troubling times.

The soothing came to the foreground when Julian met his end.  As he travelled to Princeton with a group of strangers to find his wife, they discovered that the town was filled with dead people.  The travellers began to freak out and Julian used math to calm them.  He asked how much money they would have after a month if they started with a penny on the first day and doubled their money each day.  It made everyone stop acting like lunatics as they headed off into their deaths, where they would act like suicidal lunatics.  His final moments of speaking were spent sharing math riddles with people he barely knew.  That is how much the character loved math.

The Houseplant
Back in the greenhouse scene, the owner was telling Elliot, Alma, and Jess about talking to plants.  This information would come back later in the movie.  When Elliot and his group of survivors entered a residential area, they took refuge in one of the abandoned homes.  They looked for food or anything to do while they rested.  Elliot took a moment to test out the theory that the greenhouse owner had told him.  He found a houseplant and began talking to it.  He was comforting and friendly.  Then he felt it and discovered that it was a plastic plant.

This moment brought up the strange tonal struggle that The Happening had.  The movie was played serious and straight but had these moments of misplaced humour that made it seem as though there was an attempt at comedy.  It never felt like real comedy because the movie was soaked in seriousness.  The movie was played completely straight, as though the funny things that happened weren’t funny.  It had comedic beats without a sense of comedy.

The Singing
There was a moment in The Happening where the characters approached a seemingly uninhabited house in search of food.  It didn’t take long to discover that there were people in the house and that they were not friendly.  Elliot attempted to earn their friendship and trust by singing a bit of a song.  The song was Black Water by The Doobie Brothers.  This was one of the worst renditions of the song ever put to audio.  It was reminiscent of Mark Wahlberg’s bad singing in Boogie Nights, though it was played completely straight in this instance.

The Old Woman at Night
Near the end of the movie, Elliot, Alma, and Jess were taken in by an older woman in an isolated home.  The woman had no idea what was going on in the outside world.  She was friendly at first to the group of travellers, but there was an underlying darkness to her.  At one point, she slapped Jess’s hand when Jess was taking food at the dinner table.  It was a signal for what would come with the character.

She let the three strangers stay in her guest bedroom.  That’s a better place for them than in her own bedroom.  When Elliot peeked out of the door during the night, the old woman accused him of wanting to steal her things.  He said he wasn’t going to steal anything.  Then she accused him of wanting to murder her in her sleep.  A normal person would respond along the lines of “What the hell are you talking about?”  That was not how Elliot reacted.  He instead replied with “What?  No…”  It sounded more suspicious than calming.  It made it seem like Elliot was planning on murdering her.  I can’t imagine anyone having that response in that scenario.  Why would Elliot be written to act like that?

The Cheating Storyline
One of the best decisions that was made was to include a storyline in which Alma was cheating on Elliot.  It added a much needed depth to the characters and put an emotional storyline into the movie.  The problem is that it never felt real.  It felt like a manufactured storyline meant to tug at people’s emotions.  It never succeeded.  In fact, it only added to the unintentional comedy.

The most notable part was the way in which Elliot forgave Alma.  Through the beginning portions of the movie, Alma’s phone was shown with a call coming in.  That call was from another man.  Elliot eventually noticed and asked who that was.  When he found out, he made up a story about going into a pharmacy and getting a bottle of medicine simply because the woman behind the counter was pretty.  When the story was being told, it seemed as though Elliot was trying to make Alma jealous.  When she asked him if that really happened, though, he shook his head with a look of “I’m just kidding.”  She thanked him and the storyline was done.

Intensity of Deaths
The Happening was too serious for its own good without actually being scary.  That was especially present in the deaths.  Some of the deaths managed to capture the tone that the movie was going for.  Most of them, however, were too overdone and intense.  It created this weird tone that permeated through the entire movie.

Here are a few examples of the deaths depicted.  One of the opening deaths involved a bunch of construction workers walking off the top level of whatever they were working on.  On paper, this sounds like a great idea.  It sounds like a scary cinematic image.  That didn’t come across in the execution.  The same could be said for the man who let lions rip him apart.  The one death that worked, though it still felt out of place, was one in which a man let a riding lawnmower run him over.  That was visually frightening.  It might be the only visually frightening image in The Happening.

Mood Ring
One item that Elliot always had with him was a mood ring.  It meant a lot to him.  The mood ring was how he met Alma and started the relationship that he never gave up on.  He used the mood ring to relate to most of the characters that he met.  It’s how he bonded with Jess.  It was how he brought Josh (Spencer Breslin) and Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) into his group.  The mood ring was a constant reminder of his love for Alma and the thing that kept him hopeful that they would get back together.

That about sums up The Happening.  The movie combined all of these ludicrous elements and came out as a strange entity.  It was bad.  There is no doubt about that.  The thing is, if you’re not taking the movie seriously, it can be highly enjoyable.  There is a lot of entertainment to be mined out of what M. Night Shyamalan put together.  It’s one of those movies that manages to transcend what a bad movie typically is.  It goes to another level.  Few movies match the insanity presented in the hour and a half runtime.  As much as I’ve spent this post talking about the weird things that this movie had, I still love it.  I have a great time whenever I watch The Happening.  It’s one of my favourite bad movies.  You should check it out.
You should also check out these notes:

  • A few posts that are similar to this one are the posts for Robo Vampire, Gnome Alone, and Batman & Robin.
  • Have you seen The Happening?  What do you think about it?  Is it entertainingly bad or just plain bad?  Use the comments below to let me know your thoughts.
  • The comments are also a good place to let me know about any movies that you think I should watch for the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  If not there, let me know on Twitter.  I’m always looking for more movies to watch.
  • You can follow me on snapchat as well.  I have the username jurassicgriffin, and my stories usually include clips of whatever bad movie I’m watching.  So check that out.
  • Next week’s movie is going to be Mom and Dad Save the World, which is basically Idiocracy if it was written by the characters from Idiocracy.  Come back next week as I put up a post for it.  See you then.

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