“I see dead people.” When an eleven-year-old Haley Joel Osment whispered those four little words nearly ten years ago, spines were chilled and the world was introduced to a director it would soon love to hate — M. Night Shyamalan.
With “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan reinvigorated horror, creating a blockbuster out of mood and character study rarely seen in the genre.
Six films later, Shyamalan has become one of the most polarizing filmmakers in American cinema. He’s had a mixed bag in terms of critical success with his most recent pictures “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” falling short in comparison to “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” His distaste for critics, some apparent arrogance issues and a tendency to put himself in his own pictures (like Hitchcock only with prominent speaking roles) has not helped his popularity and each new project seems to be seen as either the next “The Sixth Sense” or the end of his career (especially where internet messages boards are concerned).
With all that baggage, then, we arrive at Shyamalan’s latest venture into suspense since first finding lightning in a bottle: his first-ever-R-rated film “The Happening.” Our Smackdown pits M. Night against himself yet again as his haunting heavyweight “The Sixth Sense” goes toe-to-toe with the big-and-bad R-rated bruiser “The Happening.” Think the new guy can finally put the bully down? DING!
“The Happening” is a thriller about a family’s escape from a mysterious,
suicide-inducing event that is plaguing the Northeast. Have I mentioned that “The Happening” is rated-R? Because if I haven’t, I should let you know — “THE HAPPENING” IS RATED R!!! Never before have I seen the hype of a film based largely on the restrictions of its rating, but even before release this thriller largely built its reputation upon the idea of a new, harder-edged Shyamalan, able now to venture into places far darker than ever before. And he doesn’t hesitate to do so. The cutaways and off-screen horror that one might expect from a Shyamalan film get discarded for some in-your-face gore that could put asses in theater seats and then send them packing as quickly as they got there.
The story follows Mark Wahlberg as a high school science teacher trying to protect his family from a sudden airborne attack that transforms normal people into suicidal lemmings, forcing them to leap off buildings, hang themselves from trees, lay down in front of lawnmowers, etc. While it doesn’t pack the classic Shyamalan twist ending, there is enough ambiguity surrounding the event to keep audiences guessing going in. How long that interest lasts, however, could be another thing entirely. Did I mention it’s rated R?
The Defending Champion
“The Sixth Sense” was a landmark cinematic achievement. Even for someone who saw that surprise- nding coming (I did! I swear I did! BELIEVE ME!!!) the film proved something to marvel at — a horror film that focused more on character study and mood than cheap thrills and scare tactics. I don’t normally dig on horror, but the film’s patience and heart was something even I couldn’t ignore. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, two of which were Best Director and Best Screenplay (which Shyamalan wrote himself).
Bruce Willis stars as Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a damaged child psychologist who has lost all belief in himself and his ability to make a difference in people’s lives. He’s hopeless and at bottom, with a once-loving wife now estranged and the doors of his house seriously aching for some WD40 (you can work for that one).
It is at this point in his story that he meets Cole, a disturbed little boy that he fears could go a very terrible way without help and recognizes in the child his own chance for redemption. After their introduction, Malcolm mistakenly diagnoses Cole as paranoid and possibly schizophrenic, though he ultimately finds that the boy’s secret is far more horrific and real than he could have ever imagined: He. Sees. Dead. People.
“The Sixth Sense” is one of those films that comes around once in a great while, something that almost immediately ingrains itself into popular culture and then has the depth to remain prevalent for years to come. It is a landmark film and for Shyamalan probably a haunting one, with a shadow so large and looming that he has yet been able to shed its weight in subsequent works. So let’s see if ”The Happening” can finally be the one to set the man free.
The R-rating given “The Happening” is there with good reason as Shyamalan plays up the gore, but these moments of horror are almost laughable due to some slight overacting from his cast. It felt like “Final Destination,” an hour-and-a-half of constantly waiting for the next weird death to come, guessing how the character would off themselves and all the time realizing that even this guessing game wasn’t enough to make the film bearable. And the blame for that falls on no one but Shyamalan, who leaves his actors appearing less confused about what is happening around them (as would make sense given a real life situation) and more confused about what they’re doing in front of the camera in the first place. And this remains a constant.
There was a moment during “The Happening” when I thought to myself, “Maybe this is actually supposed to be funny. Maybe M. Night used the hype of the R-rating to dupe us into walking unaware into a surprise comedy.” After all, the cast is strangely eclectic and Zooey Deschanel is a veteran of comedy (“Elf,” “Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). Shyamalan is known for adding moments of humor to some really tense situations and the script for “The Happening” is loaded with that kind of comedy, some of which works and some that will make audiences squirm. I just find it hard to believe that the director simply overlooked the glaring weaknesses in the acting and it appears plausible that he could have intentionally pushed his cast in the direction they went for this purpose. I’m not defending it and I certainly hope that this isn’t actually the case, because even through a comedic lens the film doesn’t work. And it’d just be pretentious.
“The Sixth Sense,” on the other hand, simply allows a wonderful cast to do what they do best, sprinkling in moments of horror around them. Nearly every performance is something to marvel at, making the project extremely well-rounded and intimate. Shyamalan allows his actors to simply be, letting their performances draw the audience in, without forcing compassion down our throats (which often happens in horror.) Shyamalan understood the strength of the actors at his disposal and he used his direction only to complement their performances, not to overshadow them as is the case in “The Happening.” After all, “The Sixth Sense” did garner two Oscar nods for “Best Supporting,” and one of those went to the eleven-year-old.
Shyamalan’s patience is one of his biggest assets and the main reason “The Sixth Sense” works as well as it does. He remembers to wait, to allow the tension to build around his characters until the moment it’s about to burst, and then makes us wait some more. We spend time with the characters and get to really know and care for them, which only makes the scares that much more intense when they come. Couple that patience with a monstrous score and we become putty in Shyamalan’s hands, jumping when he says jump, weeping when he wants us to. The film is a wonderful example of character study and Shyamalan could’ve learned a valuable lesson from himself in this respect. I appreciate the fact that we are thrown into “The Happening” in the same position as the characters, with no knowledge of what’s causing any of these terrible occurrences, but we spend so little time with people that seem so awkwardly skewed that we never actually care what happens to them.
The one concern I had about “The Sixth Sense” came with its ending. We all know about the surprise twist (read line 1) and the film builds really wonderfully toward that revelation. But does it take away from its replay potential? Does knowing the truth in advance diminish our experience? I worried greatly that it might.
Fortunately, I was wrong. The film remains great with or without its infamous surprise ending. The twist is simply a bonus to what is really a focus on character, a study of people’s dealings with death and denial. Shyamalan observes his characters with respect and intimacy and the ending only allows people to look back and realize that even they couldn’t see what was in front of their faces, a revelation that connects us even further to Malcolm and his plight. Knowing the truth ahead of time makes us care more for him, seeing the depths of his denial and the sadness that comes with it. And honestly, I became so wrapped up in the characters that I nearly forgot the surprise.
“The Happening” leaves us with little more than a morality lesson and a scolding about planet care. I’m all for using art to wake up the masses and spark change, but all I really felt at the end of the film was Shyamalan wagging a finger at me. I think he really needs a friend, someone close by that he can bounce these ideas off of when they come to him. Because, despite however big and bombastic as he’d like to go, scenes that depict the wind chasing down and murdering people is simply not going to translate the way you want them to.
I appreciate what he was trying to do and the film is not without its merits. Time and again we see flares of Shyamalan’s talent, most of which comes through in shot design. However, even these moments of greatness draw attention to themselves and pull us out of the narrative, unable to work in tune with the overacting of the cast and the awkwardness of the story. What might have been a comedy-by-mistake with any other less-talented director fails due to the fact that Shyamalan’s skill is apparent, that he should’ve been able to see what he was doing and adjust. And if he did, if he in fact consciously made these decisions, then I have no idea what he was thinking, other than that he might like to waste a lot of money and put the another nail in his own career.
You know those boxing matches that you pay fifty bucks for on pay-per-view? The ones where the stoic champion knocks out the trash-talking new guy in the first seconds of the first round? And everyone in the living room is saying to themselves, “OK, he’s gonna get up. It was one hit. He…that’s it?! It’s over?!” And you’re left wondering what you’re gonna do with all those nachos.
So another contender falls bloody and bruised at the unforgiving hands of “The Sixth Sense.” The grand scope and graphic violence of “The Happening” hold virtually no weight when contrasted with the intimacy and patience that the first film employs. This latest film simply doesn’t work.
“The Sixth Sense.” KO, Round 1. Pass the nachos…