Chris Hicks: Gratuitous gore sells, but it's bad filmmaking

Published: Friday, June 20 2008 12:04 a.m. MDT

Many years ago — more than I care to admit — I interviewed filmmaker John Carpenter about his then-new film "The Thing." (OK, it was 1982. Ouch!)

Carpenter hit it big with "Halloween" in 1978, then followed up with "The Fog" (1980) and "Escape From New York" (1981). All three were justly rated R, and they were quite violent. But in the scheme of things they were much softer than a lot of sci/fi-horror at the time. And by today's standards they're quite tame.

"The Thing," however, was another story. It was by far the goriest picture Carpenter had tried up to that point, and when I spoke with him a week before the film opened he was taken aback by early critical reaction: "They say it's too graphic, that I've gone too far, and that surprised me. I think the film is not that graphic if you compare it with other movies."

In my review of the film I begged to differ. And I couldn't help but wonder how much more effective the film might have been if he had pulled back as much as he did for the original "Halloween." Even today, "The Thing's" special effects are pretty darn disgusting.

Which brings me to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," which has boldly been sold as the filmmaker's first R-rated movie ... as if that's a badge of honor. Like Carpenter, he's trying something different with gore galore, and like "The Thing," "The Happening" is Shyamalan's worst reviewed movie so far.

I was a huge fan of Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" in 1999. I was forgiving of his offbeat 2000 follow-up, "Unbreakable." And I enjoyed "Signs," although it felt like a slight step down for the guy who did "The Sixth Sense."

But then came "The Village," which was extremely disappointing, a weak, obvious "Twilight Zone" episode stretched to feature length. But who could have imagined how bad "Lady in the Water" would be? Had Shyamalan hit rock bottom?

Well, no, as it turns out. That indignity would be better applied to "The Happening," which opened last weekend.

What's shocking about "The Happening" isn't the film's "secret," although it's pretty dumb. What's shocking is how poorly directed and performed the entire project is, despite its competent cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley. The characters are awkward and aloof, the dialogue is stiff.

But the worst aspect is the film's ridiculously gory violence — some of it unintentionally hilarious.

The premise has people on the East Coast mysteriously committing suicide. And as Shyamalan becomes bored with stabbings and shootings, he borrows the creative-killing motif of the slasher genre. Some of these self-inflicted deaths are ominous but many more are ludicrously over the top.

Early in the film we see a man deliberately taunting a lion, and when his arms are ripped off and spurting blood, it brings to mind the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." If the guy had said, "It's only a flesh wound," it couldn't have been sillier.

The R rating is an obvious marketing ploy to lure gorephiles in case Shyamalan's fans have given up on him. And maybe it worked. The film earned $30 million in its opening weekend despite coming in third place. Not too shabby.

But it's not good news for film fans. When bad movies are rewarded in Hollywood we just get more bad movies.


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com

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