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Stephen King was a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening,’ now streaming on Peacock
According to King, ‘M. Night Shyamalan really understands fear.’
In M. Night Shyamalan’s supernaturally creepy film canon, 2008's The Happening (now streaming on Peacock!) doesn’t exactly rate at the top of viewers’ consensus hit list. Sitting among the measured dregs of Shyamalan’s rare movie misses, its Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores are anything but happening, despite a great cast led by Mark Wahlberg, John Leguizamo, and Zooey Deschanel.
Pitched as an apocalyptic tale of plant-perpetrated mass suicide, The Happening serves as a sort of cautionary parable about nature striking back at humans, whom the film fingers for pushing Planet Earth past its polluted tipping point. Plagued by all the man-made horrors people have wrought, the plants begin dispensing an airborne neurotoxin that takes control of its human victims’ minds, leading them like zombies to seek the nearest means at hand — remember that horrifying lawnmower scene? — of doing themselves in.
But even among the many viewers and critics who balked at the movie’s preachy premise, The Happening earned itself plenty of fans, including at least one horror master, Stephen King — and not because of the message, but because of its intimately-delivered (and unmistakably Shyamalan-esque) tension. Praising the movie at the time of its release, King said The Happening might not work as a pure fright flick, but it still showed that Shyamalan could tug hard at human nature’s scariest archetypal strings.
“The Happening was better than I expected, but it wasn’t as scary as The Strangers,” King wrote in a contemporary opinion piece for Entertainment Weekly, simultaneously shouting out the small-budget, Bryan Bertino-directed terror tale that had opened only two weeks before Shyamalan’s film.
Though he wasn’t downright effusive with the love, King already had seen enough of Shyamalan’s psychologically-driven signatures from greats like 1999's The Sixth Sense (also streaming on Peacock) and 2002's Signs to recognize where The Happening gets under your skin — “partly,” as he wrote, “because M. Night Shyamalan really understands fear, partly because this time he’s completely let himself go (hence the R rating), and partly because after Lady in the Water he had something to prove. And, happily, [The] Happening plays as a relatively small movie.”
That gets back to King’s preoccupation with the kind of horror that gets inside our heads — not because of a movie’s budget, but because of its narrative effect on viewers. “Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself, and when it works, the screams of a sold-out house are almost intrusive,” King wrote. “…Studio execs, who not only live behind the curve but seem to have built mansions there, don’t seem to understand that most moviegoers recognize all the bluescreens and computer graphics of big-budget films and flick them aside. Those movies blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge.”
When it comes to Shyamalan movies, he’s definitely got a point there. Though VFX dutifully plays its part to make the aliens feel threatening in Signs and put poison in the air in The Happening, most of the director’s high-impact moments — even in a superhero flick like 2000's Unbreakable — lean on relatably sympathetic characters and don’t-look-away plot motion to truly keep audiences dialed in.
We admit it: The Happening lands low in our own ranking of Shyamalan’s all-movie catalog, but it’s tough to argue with the well-considered opinion of a living horror legend. With King’s thoughts in mind, we’re checking it out again on Peacock this month…content in the knowledge that there’s more M. Night Shymalan streaming at the bird app if a post-screening palate cleanse is still in order.