The Happening

| June 22, 2008

While watching The Happening, I sat in the theater thinking how far horror flicks have come. We don’t have a mama’s boy sneaking up on someone in the shower, we don’t have the isolated caretaker of a hotel striking out against his family and axing through a door and we don’t have a once-institutionalized boy grown up to be a man whacking everyone each Halloween. We just don’t often have these singular enemies anymore. Everything happens on a much larger scale. True, Alfred Hitchcock had a whole flock of birds out destroying a whole town, but everything seems so much larger now.
In The Happening, the horror they are faced with is indeed “an event,” as they keep reminding us. Yet, it followed the basic format of what a good horror flick should be, and when I say “a good horror flick,” I mean those that sufficiently scare you and show the carnage left behind, but don’t show people being ripped apart, sawed up, etc. Not slasher but horror, where you watch through your hands not because you’re grossed out, but because you’re afraid of what’s coming next.
The Happening features Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher, and as soon as we see him teaching his class, we know the enemy will be something scientific. We get more clues listening to his lesson plan of the day, discussing Einstein’s theory that if all bees disappeared off the face of the earth, then humankind would only have four years left. Asking his students for explanations of how this could happen, one suggests that it’s an act of nature that we’ll never fully understand.
Indeed, while Wahlberg is teaching his class in Philadelphia, Manhattan’s Central Park is suffering through the beginning of “an event.” And after it hits the park, it spreads a few blocks. The people all stop right where they’re standing, become confused, then kill themselves in the worst ways imaginable–everything from policemen shooting themselves in the head to construction workers jumping to their deaths off scaffolding. Soon, similar events are happening in Boston and other cities and large towns in the northeastern United States.
People throughout the country begin to go on an all-out panic–assuming this is the work of terrorists, they escape, although they don’t know where they’re going. Wahlberg makes his escape with his wife, whom everyone says he shouldn’t trust (Zooey Deschanel); his fellow teacher at the high school (John Leguizamo); and the fellow teacher’s young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). Leguizamo’s wife is to join them later, and because The Happening follows a typical horror flick format, we know as soon as he says that, she’ll never be heard from again.
This mysterious enemy begins spreading out from the larger, populated areas and into smaller towns. The train Wahlberg and his party are traveling on gets stranded. Gathering together with others and deciding to head west, people separate from the main characters, instead choosing to go another way; again, we know our horror movies, and we know these people won’t be seen from again.
The traveling party shrinks as everyone gets killed off. Just like all horror flicks, I got angry with the people here for doing stupid things, such as when women suspect someone is in their house and they investigate alone rather than in a group. Hearing that the enemy might be some mysterious illness that attacks people neurologically in three separate stages and is most likely airborne through plants, everyone drives around with their windows open and gets out of their cars to wander around. Why not ride it out inside the car with everything locked up? It’s better than wandering aimlessly through empty fields.
There are also stray bits of humor strewn about The Happening, to keep us from staying 100% scared all the time. Wahlberg tries to convince some people that he hasn’t been affected by the mysterious illness yet, and to prove he’s still sane, he launches into a rousing chorus of The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”
The Happening followed the traditional formula to the extent that, once there were only a few people left, I knew I could wait to go to the bathroom, knowing I just had to wait it out 15 to 20 mintues or so until the end. The very end, though, wasn’t as scary as it should be. Normally, horror films are wrapped up in a way that shows us it’s not all okay yet, giving us one last scare. Thee last tidbit here wasn’t anything to walk away from thinking, “Uh-oh.” Instead, it was just an “Oh.”
Having said all this, my 15-year-old son still left thoroughly scared. He watched with his hands over his eyes nearly the entire time and is now afraid to mow the lawn. He slept with the light on last night and forbade his father from bringing in the houseplants last night. I’ll admit to covering my eyes at one point and jumping out of my seat at another, but I didn’t leave terrified. I spent more time trying to determine just what caused this mysterious illness.

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