Horrors! by Dan Cohen
One of the earliest public exhibitions of a “motion picture” was a static shot of a train moving towards the camera. That several seconds of film, projected on a big screen in Paris, in 1896, sent unsuspecting viewers running for the exits. Ever since, people have been going to cinemas in the hope of being scared out of their seats.
Horror films can be as diverse as comedies, although lately most have followed the by now tired formula of popular “torture porns” like “Saw,” and “Hostel.” Worldwide, horror movies sprout like weeds, sometimes choking their better bred relations, like last year’s entry from Spain, “The Orphanage,” which made you uneasy without the need for an air sickness bag. (Look for the DVD)
Now comes M. Night Shyamalan, a superstar director, who takes the high road with a refined chiller that, like “Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” recalls other films at the same time it stakes territory of its own.
“The Happening” has its awkward moments, but it digs deep into your conscious and won’t let go. The story, about a virus that erodes and then mutates human will, effectively exploits our fears about suicide and isolation. It’s a thriller for those who have contemplated the potential effects of a neutron bomb, chemical warfare, or the breakdown of the global ecology. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto renders the most pastoral settings with a taint of dread. Visual effects, used sparingly, subtly heighten reality, instead of trying to subvert it. Refreshingly, the most chilling moments occur in broad daylight. City streets and pristine forests suddenly turn imperceptibly lethal. Though you can’t see the menace you sense it lurking from the first shot.
“The Happening” is at its most disturbing when showing ordinary people in quiet free-fall; nervous survivors stuffing themselves at a diner, the entire crew of a commuter train gathered in a knot of confusion, a woman standing alone in her yard as a breeze blows through her hair.
Mark Wahlberg turns in a nuanced performance as an ordinary high school science teacher utterly incapable of coming to grips with disaster – like you and me. Zooey Deschanel, as his childlike wife, is less compelling in an underwritten part. But she’s physically right, and that helps. Shayamalan has been shrewd in the casting of many smaller parts.
There are false steps along the way. Some of the humor falls flat. The dialogue, at times purposely banal, comes close to alienating our affections for the characters. This is a function of the film’s larger ambition to focus on the ordinary, for which I can’t fault it. But as a writer Shayamalan has shown a firmer grasp of characters with broader pathologies, like the scared kid in “Sixth Sense,” or Mel Gibson’s lapsed preacher in “Signs.” Here, the bald messages his characters deliver are a bit artless.
For the most part critics have turned on this movie, but I think a lot of them so despise the writer/director’s well documented arrogance that they willfully slight his inspired filmmaking. This is ironic when just a month ago many of the same praised “The Strangers,” a stale and glum thriller that outstayed its welcome by at least an hour.
It’s no small achievement when a horror movie conjures palpable fear from thin air. Call “The Happening” a triumph of dis-ease.
Foreign film alert.
You won’t see “Reprise” in the local multiplex, but it’s worth a trip to the art theater or a place in your Netflix queue. It’s the first film of a young Danish filmmaker, Joachim Trier, and for those who crave the spirit of Truffaut or Godard, this will be a great pleasure.
Two young men send their first novels off to be published, dreaming of literary fame, success, and girls. One makes it right away, the other doesn’t. The movie follows their troubled friendship with gusto and energy. The filmmaking is so eclectic it may lose you from time to time, but there are enough pauses for you to regain your footing. Even when the characters take themselves too seriously the filmmaker knows better. Where so many films about being young sink in their own bathos, this one soars.