Whenever Alfred Hitchcock made a flop, he’d “run for cover”—return to the tried and true—for his next project and recapture the audience. That’s what M. Night Shyamalan, a devotee of The Master, is attempting with “The Happening.” His most recent movies—“The Village” and “Lady in the Water”—were so bad that they made the very idea of having to sit down and watch another far scarier than anything in them. So he’s returned to the basics, crafting a chase movie through the Pennsylvania countryside that’s like a pared-down version of “War of the Worlds” or its cousin, Shyamalan’s own “Signs.” And in the process he’s abandoned his signature twist ending, perhaps as an admission that it was a mistake to make it a signature in the first place. (Certainly “The Village” proved that.)
In terms of pure craft, Shyamalan has been quite successful. “The Happening” creates a feeling of considerable disquiet in the initial reel as some sort of toxin strikes New York, disorienting people and leading them to commit suicide; a sequence set at a construction site is a small masterpiece of composition and editing, and though its companion set-pieces aren’t quite as successful, they’re mostly effective. Then the plot kicks in as Philadelphia schoolteachers Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) decide to take their families into the countryside for safety’s sake.
Eventually Julian goes off to try to find his wife, who missed their connection in Philly, leaving his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) with Eliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel). They, and a few other people fleeing from the areas affected by the toxin, retreat into ever-more remote and unpopulated parts of the state. Their flight is punctuated by death after death as the corpses pile up. But there are also occasional moments of dark humor, especially in the Elliot-Alma relationship, troubled by her indiscretion with a co-worker named Joey (Shyamalan himself, in his briefest cameo to date, inspired perhaps by Hitchcock’s clever one in “Lifeboat”). And there’s a bleakly humorous tone to the culminating sequence in which the trio have a run-in with a wacky old recluse named Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley).
But while Shyamalan handles much of the business of running and hiding—and dying—expertly, building a genuine sense of unease, the entire thing depends on a premise so silly that it’s hard to stifle a dismissive guffaw. When push comes to shove, “The Happening” posits an eco-disaster scenario that’s not much more advanced than Triffids and killer tomatoes. This isn’t much of a spoiler, since the script reveals (or at least suggests) what’s occurring so early on that you might think that Shyamalan intended this to be his “Vertigo.” But his picture has none of the emotional or psychological resonance of Hitchcock’s, and while the explanation for what’s going on has the virtue of obviating the need for any big special effects, its ludicrousness tends to overshadow any benefit. Add to that a coda that does nothing more than hammer home what the script has already made painfully clear and you’re likely to leave the theatre more than a little let down.
The cast doesn’t exactly shine, either. Wahlberg has a difficult time convincing us of his cerebral powers (he’s much more at home with the Elliot’s slightly buffoonish qualities). Similarly, Deschanel doesn’t make Alma’s kookiness very plausible, but that can be blamed on the fact that the character is underwritten. Leguizamo isn’t around long enough to do much more than his usual shtick, but Buckley seems to be having a high old time playing the madwoman of Podunk, PA. Her off-the-wall turn gives you some idea of what she must have been like as Mrs. White in that famous Broadway disaster, the musicalization of “Carrie.” Tak Fujimoto’s camerawork gives the picture a naturalistic look even at the eeriest moments, and James Newton Howard’s score contributes significantly to the atmosphere.
“The Happening” is an almost equal combination of genuine creepiness and absolute foolishness, with the former dominating in the early reels and the latter, unhappily, in the closing ones. So it’s a comeback for the director, but not quite enough of one. At least it offers a useful message, though: Never trust a tree. Or a bush.