When one analyzes the cause of the failure of a horror story, one realizes, in short order, that the failure usually results from an inept handing of one (or more) of the basic elements of fiction, such as action, character, or theme, or from artistic self-indulgence.
M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film, The Happening (2008), is a good study in all of the following failures, any one of which could be sufficient, of itself, in some cases, to kill a film. With all these problems in the same piece of, uh, work, it would be truly astonishing if the horror film managed to survive its own debut let alone actually frighten anyone. Mercifully, it was stillborn.
The Happening fails because of its:
- Lack of compelling action
- Unsympathetic characters
- Clunky dialogue
- Unbelievable monster
- Obtuse theme
- Artistic self-indulgence
Let’s consider these items point by point, for there is something to be learned from artistic failure, just as there is something--much, in fact--to be learned from artistic success.
Lack of Action
The Happening doesn’t happen. That is, there is no action--or, rather, during the occasions that actors and properties are in motion, there isn’t any interest in, or suspense concerning, what is (allegedly) happening, partly because we don’t really give a fig what happens to the wooden characters who are supposed to be our hero and our heroine (a problem which we will consider in the next section of this post).
To be of interest to an audience, the main character and those about whom he or she cares and to whom he or she is in some way related must be sympathetic. By “sympathetic,” I don’t mean kind and considerate (at least not necessarily), but understandable and believable. We have to know where they’re coming from, where they’re headed, and why. We have to know enough about them to say to ourselves, I may not agree with your perspective or your goals, but I understand both you and what you want to accomplish; you seem like a true-to-life individual with hopes and pain and plans. The Happening’s characters are none of the above.
Dialogue should sound natural. It should be a good imitation of the way that real, flesh-and-blood people actually talk, and it should mirror the inner worlds of the individuals who speak it. In short, it should be realistic. The dialogue in The Happening is clunky at best, absurd at worst, and destroys verisimilitude in either case.
Shyamalan asks his audience to believe that plants are mad as hell and refuse to take any more of humanity’s environmental abuses.
What’s this movie about? It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature? We've only ourselves to blame for greenery’s coming curse? What happens in America is sure to happen elsewhere, too, especially in France? Current events in science can make money for filmmakers as well as scientists? Global warming may not be that big a deal, after all? Killer bees are the least of our problems? It doesn’t matter what kind of garbage a director delivers if he is selling his name instead of his art?
After spending ten bucks and a couple hours of one’s lifetime, a moviegoer expects to learn, or be reminded of, something worthwhile. Again, The Happening doesn’t deliver.
Being a film director, even an auteur, doesn’t give anyone, least of all M. Night Shyamalan, the right to indulge his own personal and private takes on society, politics, or anything else--at least not without entertaining his audience first and foremost. Like the messianic Lady in Water (2006) (recipient of four Golden Raspberry Awards), this film is nothing more than a vehicle for narcissistic and sanctimonious self-indulgence.
With only two successful films, The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002), to his credit, Shyamalan's career is desperately near extinction, and one can only wonder how long it can continue while he himself is running on empty.