The Happening (2008) – Horror Film Review

By Steve Biodrowski 

In his latest ominous opus, M. Night Shyamalan offers up low-intensity thrills that fail to match the shivery shudders of his best work (THE SIXTH SENSE, SIGNS). His patented approach – mixing domestic drama with horror – plays out on a much larger canvas ths time, yet yields diminishing returns inversely proportional to the scope of the project. The presentation of an uncanny “happening” that defies explanation evokes a suitable sense of paranoia early on, but putting the horror on a global scale dwarfs the human element, rendering it almost petty. The strident attempt to underline the events with a thought-provoking message makes George A. Romero recent work seem subtle by comparison. By the conclusion the film has descended into unconvincing melodrama, tagged by hokey happy ending and a predictable “twist.” Continue reading “The Happening (2008) – Horror Film Review”

Sense of Wonder: What is Happening to Night?

M. Night Shyamalan on location for THE HAPPENING

Media attempts to chart the rise and fall of Shyamalan’s career overlook his message. 

In anticipation of THE HAPPENING, the new film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, we have, typically, seen a series of TV appearances and articles to promote the film’s release. Atypically, this article in the Los Angeles Times says next to nothing about the film itself; instead, writer Rachel Abramowitz attempts to give an assessment of Shyamalan’s career in the fall-out of the bomb that was LADY IN THE WATER: When Disney, which financed his previous films, objected to the screenplay, Shyamalan took the project to another studio, then complained in Michael Bamberger’s book The Man Who Heard Voices that Disney “no longer valued individualism.” This perceived arrogance resulted in a certain Schadenfreude in the hallowed halls of Hollywood when the film turned out to be not a triumph of artistic independence but a self-indulgent mess. Continue reading “Sense of Wonder: What is Happening to Night?”

Lady in the Water (2006) – Fantasy Film Review

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Shyamalan’s message: Love my movie – or die!

This is the second dud in a row from M. Night Shyamalan. On a simple story level, it is not quite as long-winded and dull as 2004’s THE VILLAGE, but it does continue the writer-director’s regrettable decline, subordinating his simple stories to heavy-handed thematic pretensions that the narrative cannot support. Whereas once Shyamalan wanted to scare us with believable horror stories, now he wants to bore us with unbelievable allegories, tossing in a gratuitous monster as a sop to fans of his earlier, superior work (THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS). The story of LADY IN THE WATER is, to put it bluntly, badly paced and completely trivial, not to mention juvenile. Perhaps this is because the source material is a children’s book that Shyamalan wrote; unfortunately, the script does nothing to bring the story elements into a believable sense of adult reality. Instead, the characters act like children: without question, they believe the title character is a mythical creature, and they go to weird lengths to assist her, relying on a belief in an old fable as their only source of information on how to deal with the incredible situation.
All mysterious chick in the pool has to do to accomplish her mission is look at an aspiring writer (played by Shyamalan himself) for a few seconds, which somehow imbues him with the inspiration he needs to finish his inspirational book, which will inspire future generations to heights of inspired inspiration. For such a big goal, it is achieved with surprising ease – which means the story is essentially over halfway through the running time. Consequently, the rest of the movie is devoted to trying to get the Lady in the Water back home (kind of like E.T.), but there’s some big wolfish creature lurking in the lawn, preventing her return. (The monster looks as if it is made of grass, but no one ever considers simply using a lawnmower on it.)
The lawn monster is what development executives and literature professors like to call a “plot complication.” The characters in LADY IN THE WATER might or might not use the term, but they do talk about storytelling conventions quite a bit. Having decided that they are “in” some kind of children’s tale, they begin to make all the decisions based on this assumption. The film starts to feel like the cinematic equivalent of a John Barth story (for example, “Lost in the Funhouse”), enumerating its own narrative devices even while exploiting them.
Unlike Barth, however, Shyamalan is not using this post-modern technique as a way of spoofing his reliance on hoary genre conventions. Instead, he means to extol the virtues of his own storytelling as something classic and unassailable, despite its simple-minded naiveté, which the audience is supposed to embrace with the unquestioning love of a child, whether or not it is worthy of adoration.
The point is made most clearly through Shyamalan’s treatment of the only unsympathetic character, a film critic (played by Bob Balaban), who also becomes the monster’s only victim. Even granting Shyamalan permission to indulge in this kind of petty revenge fantasy, the use of the critic in the plot is badly bungled. The film’s central character, Cleveland Hemp (Paul Giametti) goes to the critic for advice, since a critic should know all about storytelling. The critic gives Cleveland what is actually (although the film never acknowledges it) perfectly good advice – which Cleveland then misinterprets with disastrous results. Instead of blaming Cleveland, the film blames the critic, dismissing him as “arrogant” for thinking he knew what he was talking about. And then the monster eats him.
In effect, Shyamalan is saying that only cynical self-absorbed critics refuse to surrender to the wonder and imagination of his movies; therefore, they should be viciously eviscerated as punishment for not acknowledging his genius. This is a sentiment worthy of hacks like Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who pilloried Roger Ebert in GODZILLA (1998), because the critic dissed their INDEPENDENCE DAY. But it is beneath someone of Shyamalan’s talent, betraying the uplifting portrait of humanity that marks his best work.
As if all this were not enough, LADY IN THE WATER is, ultimately, a giant masturbation fantasy for Shyamalan, who casts himself as the man whose writing will change the world for the better. Not only that, he’s a martyr, as well!
As a horror story, LADY IN THE WATER is half-hearted at best, its monster little more than a dramatic device. As a fairy tale, it fares little better, insisting that we somehow owe it to Shyamalan to accept his imaginary world, whether or not he works hard to convince us to believe in it. As with THE VILLAGE (and to some extent, SIGNS), Shyamalan uses an isolated setting (in this case, an apartment complex) as a microcosm of the world. But he never invests this self-contained world (the film never ventures outside the complex) with the magic it needs to support a story about a mermaid-like creature secretly ensconced in a swimming pool.
In fact, just about the only convincing element is Paul Giamatti’s performance. The actor must be some kind of certified genius: he almost single-handedly holds audience attention through the film; even when LADY IN THE WATER is at its most absurd, he manages to play a character, not just a walking mouth-piece for Shyamalan’s self-serving dialogue.
LADY IN THE WATER might have worked if it had been shot in traditional cell animation and/or featured a cast of children (making it easier to accept they would believe the fairy tale elements without question). As an adult drama, it’s a mess. Perhaps the film’s biggest failing is that, unlike THE SIXTH SENSE, Shyamalan does not create a believable reality into which the supernatural elements intrude; this lack of a convincing context undermines the horror, which works only on a simple jump-and-scream basis, instead of the uncanny frisson of SIXTH SENSE.
LADY IN THE WATER(2006). Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Sarita Choudhury, Cindy Cheung, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodriguez, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski

The Village (2004) – Film Review

Not a nice place to visit, and you definitely don’t want to live there.

By Steve Biodrowski

Like UNBREAKABLE, this is another major disappointment from the writer-director of the excellent THE SIXTH SENSE. THE VILLAGE is not completely awful, but it comes closer than one would like to admit. Although there are a few good scenes and some strong performances, the film suffers from unbearably slow pacing, and much of the drama is uninvolving. There are a few suspenseful moments, but the film does not carefully build up to them – it simply serves them up at irregular intervals and hopes the audience will sit still long enough to get to them. The problem seems to lie at the heart of the film’s premise: What is the background of the mysterious Village? Where is the Village located? In what time period Continue reading “The Village (2004) – Film Review”

Cybersurfing: Zooey Deschanel on "The Happening"

zooey-deschanel-picture-1.jpgFor a major summer movie, the promotional campaign for THE HAPPENING hasn’t exactly been burning a brand into the American consciousness, but there have been some TV appearances and articles. has a brief interview with actress Zooey Deschanel, who gives her view of the film’s message:

The film raises questions more than it [answers them]. A lot of people are saying that it has a message, and in a way it has a message, but I think the message is more like a question, like, “What would you do in this situation? Does this seem possible to you? Like, think about it.” It’s more of a “think about it” kind of message than anything. And I like that about it. It doesn’t feel too preachy.

It’s been awhile since we’ve checked in our our favorite critic down under, the lovely Liz of the And You Call Yourself a Scientist website. Her latest reviews are of ROBOT MONSTER and GOJIRA. Take our word for it: even if you think you’ve read anything you ever want to about either or both of these, she will have something new and interesting to say.

Vault of Horror frets over whether a proposed sequel to 30 DAYS OF NIGHT will go direct-to-video or not. Considering what a disappoint dud the first film was, we wonder why anyone would care. And when you think of it, exactly what are they going to make a sequel about? Certainly none of the human characters are worth carrying over, and the only interesting vampire was killed off, so there’s not much left on which to hang a sequel, unless it’s the concept.  So what’s it going to be? Let’s find another small town above the arctic circle? Or maybe just another isolated human population where help cannot arrive for some weird reason?

Arbogast on Film offers an appreciation of Michael Rennie, the actor who starred in the 1951  sci-fi classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. He also tells you everything you might want to know about FRONTIER(S), the blood-soaked French shocker, which he declares to be a “family film!”

Dinner with Max Jenke fondly recalls DEADLY EYES, a killer rat movie based on James Herbert’s somewhat less cryptically titled novel The Rats. I saw the film only once, decades ago, and I recollect it was a real hoot – not really good, but fun. My favorite moment was when one high school chick was wondering why her friend was wasting her time pining for her high school teacher. The first chick’s objection to this behavior was absolutely irrefutable; it ran something like this: you’re a cheerleader, and you’re boyfriends the star football player; what more could you want out of life? With moments like this, I’m glad I’m not the only one with a soft spot in my heart for DEADLY EYES. Which, by the way, was directed by Robert Clouse, whose most famous film is ENTER THE DRAGON, with Bruce Lee.

Sci-Fi Japan is giving away two free tickets to the New York Asian Film Festival. The fest will feature the U.S. premiere of ALWAYS SUNSET ON THIRD STREET – it’s a comedy, not a sci-fi film, but it includes a cameo by Godzilla (seen in a film within a film).

This has been around for awhile, but I missed it till now: Exploding Kinetoscope offers an impassioned defense of SPEED RACER – an apparent attempt to rescue the film from its dismal box office. An attempt doomed to failure, it turned out. Chris Stangl seems to blame the poor box office on critical reaction, then declares further down that the success of THE MATRIX was a fluke. MATRIX was too “fetishistic, brainy, brain-fried and stylized” for ordinary people, who should have “stayed away in droves.” Maybe so, but then why should we blame critics if audiences stay away in droves from SPEED RACER?

The Groovy Age of Horror is taking a fine-tooth comb to Freud’s famous essay, “The Uncanny,” to determine whether the father of psychoanalysis really proves his point, that fear of the uncanny is rooted in the return of the repressed.

And finally…

I’m not sure I like this League of Tana Tea Drinkers – a loose collection of bloggers who write about horror. I mean, I enjoy the individual blogs, but they do this thing where they all get together and decide to blog on the same topic

What this means is that when I’m out surfing cyberspace, looking for something new and interesting – I SEE THE EXACT SAME TOPIC EVERYWHERE I GO! It’s like being trapped in some David Lynch movie, where lines of dialogue are said by one character then repeated an hour later by someone else in a different context. I don’t need it and I don’t want it. I want something different, not the same thing I just read at the last place.

Anyway, the current topic is evil kids. You can read a post about this at Zombo’s Closet of Horror.

Unbreakable (2000) – Film Review

This disappointing follow-up to THE SIXTH SENSE reteams star (Bruce Willis) and writer-director (M. Night Shyamalan), but the old magic fails to re-materialize, thanks to overwrought melodrama and contrived plot developments. The premise (of a man who miraculously survives a train wreck that kills everyone else on board) initially seems intriguing, setting up a mystery that the audience is eager to explore; unfortunately, the script begins to fall apart as it reveals the explanation for what is happening. Ultimately turns laughable in its attempt to take a frankly silly comic book premise and treat it with all the seriousitude of an ersatz Greek tragedy. Imagine mixing gummy bears with Terrine de Foie Gras Naturel, and you’ll have some idea of the result.
Unbeknownst to himself, David Dunne (Bruce Willis) appears to be, as the title suggests, “unbreakable.” The audience wants to know why, but the film is slow to answer, because the script has other fish to fry, regarding David’s unhappy home life. Eventually, the domestic drama slows down long enough for Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in rare comic book art, to suggest that David is the real-life equivalent of a superhero. Elijah suffers weak bones that easily fracture (earning him the nickname “Mr. Glass”), and he believes David may literally be his polar opposite.

This interesting idea diverts the story in onto a new track: instead of coming to terms with guilt over surviving an accident that killed so many others, David slowly accepts the reality of his own incredible capabilities. Unfortunately, this process occupies most of the remaining screen time. As in he did in SIXTH SENSE, Shyamalan wants to establish the ordinary, everyday reality before pushing the fantasy element into it. It’s a clever gambit, but it works to less effect here. SIXTH SENSE, in spite of its ghost story trappings, touched on emotions and experiences that are closer to our own real lives than anything in UNBREAKABLE. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve lost a loved one or had a sense of something invisible in the dark. UNBREAKABLE simply cannot tap into the same well, no matter how hard it tries. Although there are some entertaining moments, the revelations and melodrama undermining believability instead of enhancing it.
The screenplay struggles to prevent the “superhero” element from completely eclipsing the domestic drama. David apparently resents his wife (Robin Wright Penn) because he gave up a promising football career for her (a physical therapist, she didn’t want to marry a man whose job consisted of inflicting injuries). But David’s revelation about his preternatural abilities leads him to realize he has a different destiny, erasing any regrets.
As sincere as this effort is, it stumbles over the comic book motif, which suggests a level of fantasy that simply does not blend with the other elements. The worst example of this is the incredible scene (which should have ended up on the cutting room floor) when David’s  son (Spencer Treat Clarke) aims a gun at his father over the dinner table and threatens to shoot him to prove that he is in fact invulnerable. Instead of putting viewers on the edge of theirs seats, this scene (filmed in a single take) simply starts them wagging their heads.
The search for meaning is a powerful theme in art and entertainment. UNBREAKABLE strives to embrace this theme, as David searches for an answer to explain his inexplicable survival, an answer that ultimately has ramifications that affect and improve his life. But the quest for meaning can be dangerous. Facts do not always conform to our philosophies, and high-minded ideals can be out of touch with reality. Pure idealism can be the most dangerous thinking, because it seeks to conform the world at large to a conception that may not be possible. It is for this reason that we move on from the fairy tales of our youth (with their clear dichotomy between Good and Evil) and explore other, more complex forms of storytelling as we grow older. For young mind, fairy tales provide a way of understanding the world (as Bruno Bettleheim pointed out in The Uses of Enchantment), and they continue to form a rich soil for interpretation and enjoyment even when you’re older—but you would be ill advised to take them literally.
Shyamalan seems to be setting up a story that will play off this idea. Elijah states that comic books present a cheapened, commercialized version of the heroic myth, suggesting that the film will present a more sophisticated version. Instead, we get the usual comic book clichés, just dressed up in every day clothing, and the result borders on absurdity. When Elijah offers up his endless interpretations of David’s situation, you laugh. You laugh even more when the cornball action is contrived to match Elijah’s theories. Elijah opines that water is the equivalent of kryptonite for David. When David inevitably falls into a pool while fighting a criminal, you would hope that Shyamalan would use the moment to undermine the superhero myth—to show the difference between expectation and reality, to keep the story at a believable level, to remind us that David is, after all, a human being, not an alien from another world. Instead, the scene plays out exactly like the most formulaic comic book movie, complete with a last-minute rescue and a swelling, uplifting surge from the orchestral score to tell us that he may look like a mere man, but he really is a superman.
Comic books are an interesting and entertaining medium, but you would be ill advised to attempt living your life according to them. That’s why it is easy to relate when David initially rejects that idea that he is the real-life embodiment of a comic book superhero. Eventually, the film does undermine Elijah’s assertions, but only with a last-minute twist ending that is dramatically empty and pointless. Yes, Shyamalan finally admits, squeezing your life to fit the pattern of a comic book can have bad effects on the psyche, but the message rings hollow because it is simply presented to us as a bald fact, not as something that emerges dramatically out of David’s story. Consequently, the ending falls flat, provoking groans of disappointment from the audience.
Which is really too bad, because the evidence of enormous talent is so abundantly on display here. Willis and Jackson are great. Technical aspects are excellent. Shyamalan offers up interesting characters and ideas and uses some carefully honed craftsmanship to get them on screen, include long, unbroken takes that let the cast handle the dramatic work, as opposed to flashier camera angles and editing used to convey David’s “superpower.”
Clearly, a lighter – perhaps even tongue-in-cheek – touch would have been more appropriate for such an over-the-top fantasy tale. The serious aspirations simply undercut what could have been an amiable  action-packed fantasy. The result is a frustrating, broken fragment of what could have been.


In 2001, Disney launched their line of live-action special edition DVDs, with the UNBREAKABLE Two-Disc Vista Series. This featured an anamorphic widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 sound, but the bonus features were limited to a handful of items on Disc Two (which probably could have fit on Disc One). There was a “Behind the Scenes” documentary; a “Comic Book and Superheroes” featurette; a multi angle feature for the “Train Station Sequence”; seven deleted scenes; and “Millionaire,” a short amateur movie Shyamalan made as a boy.
The 2008 Blu-ray disc (released on April 1) offers increased video resolution, plus an uncompressed Linear PCM 5.1 soundmix and the old Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix, but not the DTS 5.1 mix. Otherwise, it contains all the familiar DVD bonus features, ported over to the new format, without any additions.
UNBREAKABLE (2000). Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Eamonn Walker.

The Sixth Sense (1999) – Film & DVD Review

1999 was the year that the horror seemed to rise from the dead, thanks to the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT; unfortunately, that film was more box office phenomenon than a good movie. Thankfully, THE SIXTH SENSE came along to offer ample evidence that the genre’s resurrection was more than just a fluke. This film proved that a supernatural spook show, combined with solid drama, could appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, without downplaying the horror. The film benefits from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s low-key, realistic approach, which mixes the supernatural with sentimentality. Yet, it is much more than a mere manipulative crowd pleaser that struck box office gold by combining guaranteed commercial elements; it is actually a thoughtful, expertly crafted piece of entertainment. The film achieves both sophistication and scariness, without short-circuiting on its own ambitions. Best of all, the thrills are of the creep-up-the-back-of-your neck variety that work on the individual psyche, as opposed to the simple shock sort (which is Shyamalan would descend to in later work, such as LADY IN THE WATER), which really only works a receptive audience eager for cheap thrills.
Shyamalan achieves a brilliant sense of dread by completely convincing us of the everyday believability of his situations — and then, in the great tradition of ghost stories by M.R. James, allowing the supernatural to intrude gradually, thus creating a sense of the uncanny that had been long absent from the genre. Neither a self-reflexive comedy like SCREAM nor a contrived gimmick film like BLAIR WITCH, this is a film as strong in the characterization, dialogue and acting department as any mainstream drama from its year, including the Best Picture Oscar-winners AMERICAN BEAUTY.

Perhaps the story’s greatest coup is its amazing twist ending, which (like the ending of PSYCHO) turns out, in retrospect, to be no twist at all. In other words, the revelation makes sense of what preceded, without any cinematic cheats to keep you from guessing the truth; in fact, you realize that what appeared to be typical movie cheats are actually dramatically justified by what we learn at the end. The proof of this is that, like PSYCHO, the film works perfectly during a second viewing: you reinterpret events in light of what you didn’t know the first time through, and you realize that the story makes even more sense than you realized.
To list the film’s virtues would be to turn this review into a laundry list of almost every single element on view. Suffice to say that it well warranted its six Academy Award nominations. In addition, one should give credit to Bruce Willis for abandoning his movie-star action-hero persona in favor of giving a genuine acting performance. His scenes with Haley Joel Osment (which comprise most of the movie, you realize after the fact) feature some of the best screen chemistry every captured on film. And the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, with its dark, imposing shadows and the recurring red motif, works to excellent effect.
It’s a shame that THE SIXTH SENSE walked away empty-handed on Oscar night, but don’t let that diminish your perceptions of the film’s excellence. THIS SIXTH SENSE ranks among the greatest ghost stories ever filmed.


THE SIXTH SENSE is a movie that rewards multiple viewings. It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into the making of the film, and it is fun to be able to go back and observe details that fly by during a regular viewing, even if you’re not obsessive about picking the film apart. This makes THE SIXTH SENSE a perfect candidate for a film to own on DVD. It’s been released on disc in a few different versions; unfortunately, none of them includes a director’s audio commentary. On the plus side, the Collector’s Edition provides lots of interesting extras.
The picture is enhanced for widescreen TV sets. If you don’t have a widescreen television, you need to adult the aspect ratio on your DVD player to get a letterboxed image; otherwise, you will be seeing a squeezed image. The Dolby sound works wonders for the spookiness of effect, bringing out James Newton Howard’s score and the sound effects as well.

Bonus features include storyboard to film comparisons, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, two television spots, and several featurettes that cover topics like “Rules and Clues.” In this segment, the filmmakers discuss the rules of the afterlife, which had to be followed so that the film would make sense on a second viewing. These rules, along with clues dropped as to the truth about Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) set up the film’s surprise ending. (For instance, when Dr. Crow takes a seat with his wife at the restaurant, he does not pull the chair up to the table; the chair remains motionless.)
M. Night Shyamalan provides introductions to the deleted scenes, discussing what they were intended to achieve and why they were ultimately dropped. The deleted material is quite good when taken on its own, but its deletion clearly served the best interest of the movie.
Shyamalan also provides a brief interview to introduce a clip from a home movie he made when eleven years old. The writer-director expresses interest in making movies that enter into the cultural consciousness, becoming part of the shared experiences of millions of people around the world. (In retrospect, this sounds a bit like the first sign of the hubris that would lead him to cast himself in LADY IN THE WATER as a writer whose work will save the world.)
Despite the lack of audio commentary, the Collector’s DVD gives a good glimpse into the making of THE SIXTH SENSE. The chapter stops are very convenient when you want to pinpoint a particular scene or shot for close inspection. The interviews are entertaining, and the picture and sound quality make this film almost as frightening in your home as it was in the theatres.
NOTE: The subsequent Two-Disc Vista Series DVD includes all the bonus features from the Collector’s Edition plus several additional extras.

Mischa Barton as one of the film's troubled ghosts

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). Written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Anthony Tambakis.