Improving on his last two duds The Village and the dreadful aquatic nymph tale Lady In The Water writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan gets back to the kind of eerie paranoid thriller he so successfully mined in early efforts like The Sixth Sense and Signs. The results this time are mixed in this story of a mysterious environmental “happening” on the East Coast that is causing large groups of people to commit suicide. As he does in his most effective films Shyamalan focuses on a core group of people who must find a way to survive these strange events. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia science teacher already dealing with marital problems with his attractive but rather unstable wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) now thrust into full crisis mode as he his wife a fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) hit the road by train then car to escape the unusual plague first thought to be a terrorist attack. The group soon realizes it is more than that perhaps a forceful message from Mother Nature cued by the growing winds and rustling of tree leaves. Joined eventually by two older boys Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) and Josh (Spencer Breslin) Elliot tries to be the voice of reason as each person begins to meet their own fates on a journey into a heartland of unexplainable terror. Unlike most contemporary horror films in which actors must battle butt-ugly creatures most of the genuine frights in this flick are left to our imagination. Here Shyamalan wants us to experience what the characters are going through the abject fear on their faces. Wahlberg is particularly good at expressing a growing feeling that events are slipping out of his control. He’s amusing in a direct encounter with a house plant he fears may now have the upper hand and in the film’s best sequence where he must convince a batty paranoid old woman (an intense Betty Buckley) to let the group stay in her remote farmhouse. Forced to utter lines like “just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil invented ” the quirky Deschanel has her work cut out for her but is likeable enough in the end. As a math teacher Leguizamo spends much of his screen time calculating everyone’s odds for survival until his own becomes questionable. As his daughter Sanchez is appealing and handles herself well. Shyamalan is the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock--in his own mind at least. Hitch’s The Birds seems to be the template but that 1963 classic is light years ahead in every way. Unfortunately Shyamalan is becoming something of a one-trick pony as The Happening is basically a retread of things we’ve seen him do before. There is no question he has superior skills. He clearly gets the horror genre; he just doesn’t seem to know how to make it fresh anymore and the answer isn’t by ratcheting up the body count. Reportedly 20th Century Fox asked him deliberately to make an R rated film (his first) and its those gore-filled elements which seem superfluous here. Do we really need to see a guy commit suicide by willingly letting some zoo lions rip off his arms? It’s glaring and out of place with the subtler aspects of the director’s style. Plus the use of overbearing and obvious music cues (score is by James Newton Howard) shamelessly telegraphs whatever scares the movie and only serves to emphasize the shortcomings of M. Night’s sketchy screenplay. Still as a summertime time-waster The Happening fills the bill but as an eco-thriller with dire warnings for humankind it drowns in its own promising potential.
Hostel: Part II picks up where the first Hostel left off—and then Paxton (Jay Hernandez) wakes up. It’s the last nightmare he’ll ever (be able to) have. Cut to Rome where three American girls—wealthy Beth (Lauren German) sex-craving Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and naïve awkward Lorna (Heather Matarazzo)—have completed their art class after painting a nude model (Vera Jordanova) and are off to Prague via train. While en route they bump into that same nude model who convinces them to change their plans and come with her to an exclusive hot-springs spa in Slovakia. And so their fates are sealed. Once they check in at their hostel with the bellboy who might as well be Satan’s little helper the bidding begins. All around the world the well-to-do-but-not-well-meaning vie for a chance at torturing and savagely murdering these fresh American college gals. And the winners are: Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi) two Americans with WAY too much money on their hands. Thus begins the torturing—of the audience. There is an underrated skill in being able to act scared to death for your life—and in Hostel II’s case whatever prop cutlery was used to poke at the victims’ bodies probably made acting spontaneously easier. Most of the cast however tends to overdo it here. The lone exception is German (A Walk to Remember) making this by far her biggest acting splash to date as the heroine…type. She more so than the others is forced to emote rather than just shriek and she shows ability that reaches beyond horror movies. Phillips (Bully) and Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse) meanwhile though disparate character-wise both over-act: Matarazzo especially tries too hard to be gawky even if it makes for a starker contrast when her character is well you know. And grossly—pun intended—miscast is Desperate Housewives actor Bart who--no matter the volume and amount of F-bombs he drops--isn’t game for the uber-depravity that writer-director Eli Roth was going for. In fact the foreign unknowns outperform their American counterparts quite a bit in this sequel. First thing’s first: If Hostel II managed to snag an R rating then hardcore porn should be rated G! Now on to writer-director Eli Roth. To his credit the horror god possesses a mind sicker than any other contemporary filmmaker including returning exec-producer/endorser Quentin Tarantino but that doesn’t mean he knows how to tell a story. There's not a whole that goes on between the jaw-dropping scenes of torture the audience has come to half-see which begs the question: Would Hostel II be anything at all if not for said sadism? In addition a lack of true story brings to light another potential flaw in the Roth system—he doesn’t frighten us so much as disturb. But therein lies the good as well. If you like to be disturbed in a strictly I’d-never-do-this-but-maybe-it-happens-somewhere kind of way Roth is most certainly your man. Of course if you like to be disturbed by a film in any way Roth is most certainly your man. He’s got a wild and prolific imagination and when he turns it on the resulting images are unlike anything you’ve ever seen or want to see again—impossible to look at or away from. If only he could expend it on the stuff surrounding the imagery.