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Should We Expect Redemption or Disappointment With The Happening?

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Novelist Scott Sigler’s horror column appears every Thursday.

I’m not buying the hype this time. I’m just not. M. Night Shyamalan took my money for The Sixth Sense . I coughed up the dough for Signs , strung me along again with The Village, and for Lady in the Water, ordered the surf and turf and a bottle of Cristal before dumping me and leaving the restaurant.

M. Night Shyamalan, once up on a time you were a sure thing, but you’ve stopped putting out. And I’m pissed.

Now he’s flirting with us again, batting his eyelashes and promising that this time, with The Happening, the movie not only looks hot as hell, it’s going to give it up as well. That’s right, The Happening hits theaters tomorrow. Yeah, Friday the 13th. Wooo, that’s scary. And it should be scary. With all the global warming hysteria, a horror movie about nature releasing a biotoxin that makes people kill themselves could be simultaneously apocalyptic and… so green. A politically correct horror flick? Why not: Enough people in our culture buy into the concept that humans are actually a disease that inflicts Earth, so why not play on an immune response as a plot device?

So I have to ask — will this be redemption for a man that is supposed to be one of the great storytellers of our time, or will it be another contrived plot with more holes than Fifty Cent? “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” That phrase is known as The Peter Principle. This theory postulates that if you are successful at your job, you get promoted to the next level, and keep moving up the ladder until you reach a job at which you suck. Then because you suck, you can’t advance any farther. You advance to the point of failure, and stay there.

Sometimes it seems like entertainment can produce the same effect, particularly with the authors and directors who are responsible for large-scale story concepts. In the early stages of such careers, those people go through a tough gamut of feedback and control from editors, publishers, producers, investors and the like. Entertainment is a business, and while fans and critics often moan about the endless commercialization of art, without a happy, paying audience, an “artist” is just some dude living in his parent’s basement, ducking away from dad every time the conversation rolls around to “Isn’t it time you got a real job?”

Movies are big money. When wallets are on the line, everyone wants a
say in what gets made.
Too many cooks can turn a perfect steak into a half-digested mess, but
they can also push the artist to refine his or her vision. Additional
eyes find more plot holes. As a storyteller, sometimes you just
flat-out miss stuff that blazes obvious to others. In my own
experience, feedback from readers and editors, even bad
feedback, can open up new thoughts and make you look at a story
in a different light. You find plot holes. You eliminate illogical
character actions. In the end, the plot gets tighter, the story flows
better and you create a better product.

But once you have a
big-time bestseller or two, you might start to ignore that outside
advice completely. Or in the case of M. Night Shyamalan, once you are
heralded as a moviemaking god, you probably think you can pull a
culinary Lazarus and turn that half-digested mess back into a perfect
steak.

Shyamalan, of course, gave us all an iconic gem with The Sixth Sense. Let’s not beat around the bush, he knocked that one out of the park. We weren’t just entertained
by the movie; we weren’t simply relieved to have seen something that
didn’t suck — we were absolutely riveted. The movie was so strong it
catapulted Shyamalan into legendary directorial heights. He was
heralded as either either as “the new Hitchcock” or “the new Spielberg”
or sometimes both in the same breath. As an artist, the problem comes
when you start to believe the hype. 

When the box office
apparently backs up the critical acclaim, perhaps you hit that zone
where you buy in (and if you doubt he’s bought in, check out the second
paragraph in this 2006 Time Magazine article).
At this point, two bad things can happen — you stop listening to the
people around you, or they buy the hype too and stop offering up
critique.

For Shyamalan, it seems clear he stopped listening. The horribly contrived plot of Signs
alone basically insults the intelligence of anyone that watches it (how
about instead of an all-powerful God killing Mel Gibson’s wife, putting
Gibson through a decade of anguish and doubt, not to mention killing
thousands of people who have nothing to with Gibson, how about just
making the aliens go somewhere else? And come on, monsters that die from water? You can fly across space, but you can’t afford a wetsuit?). The myopic story concepts continued with The Village,
which did show Shyamalan’s penchant for creating suspense, but
the plot defied common-sense logic to the point where it became more
fairy tale than suspense movie. The culmination came with Lady in the Water:
Not only did this story spiral off into Neverland, but Shyamalan cast
himself as a visionary writer that completely changes humanity for the
better. Ego, meet Night. Night, Ego.

We can all elevate ourselves
to the Olympian heights, but if you go back to the assertion that
movies are a business, you can’t argue with Shyamalan’s magic. Starting
with The Sixth Sense, every one of his films has turned a big profit. He’s responsible for over a billion
dollars in box office. Whether we like his movies or not, enough of us
go to see them to ensure he can keep making more, and keep making them
the way he wants to — ridiculous plot contrivances and all.

But
you know what, Sadie? You’ve teased me enough. I’ve had it. I’m not
picking you up and we’re not going to the Lobster House… I’m
swapping the surf and turf and Cristal for Cheese-Its and Diet Coke —
I think a quiet night at home when you’re out on DVD will do just fine.

scott75.jpgScott Sigler writes tales of hard-science horror, then gives them away as free audiobooks at www.scottsigler.com. His hardcover debut Infected is available in stores now. If
you don’t agree with what Scott says in this blog, please email him
scott@scottsigler.com. Please include all relevant personal
information, such as your address and what times you are not home, in
case Scott wishes to send someone to “discuss” your opinions.

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