'Eco-Horror': Green Panic on the Silver Screen? Critics may have called The Happening toxic, but the movie may have some value as a piece of eco-horror. As real-life environmental fears loom larger, films that warn against abusing the planet are being produced in larger numbers.
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'Eco-Horror': Green Panic on the Silver Screen?

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'Eco-Horror': Green Panic on the Silver Screen?

'Eco-Horror': Green Panic on the Silver Screen?

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Bob and his fellow critics may be giving "The Happening" the cold shoulder, but the movie is part of a hot trend, the environmental fright flick.

NPR's Neda Ulaby takes a look at the latest in eco-horror.

NEDA ULABY: All those deaths in New York and Philadelphia force "The Happening's" heroes to join a mass evacuation.

(Soundbite of movie "The Happening")

Ms. ZOOEY DESCHANEL (Actress): (As Alma Moore) They say Boston got hit too.

Mr. MARK WAHLBERG (Actor): (As Elliot Moore) Where'd you hear that?

Ms. DESCHANEL: (As Alma Moore) A friend from work. What about Yvette?

Mr. WAHLBERG: (As Elliot Moore) She made it out on a bus.

Ms. DESCHANEL: (As Alma Moore) What the hell is going on, Elliot?

ULABY: What's happening is an environmental catastrophe. Director M. Night Shyamalan originally called the movie "The Green Effect."

Mr. M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN (Director, "The Happening") And then I was writing it and I still - I hadn't seen "An Inconvenient Truth" yet. And when I saw that, I was like, oh, man. This is worse that I thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Shyamalan joked that Al Gore's documentary may be the seminal horror film of the century. And "An Inconvenient Truth's" box office success may be partially responsible for the recent flood of apocalyptic dramas about climate change.

(Soundbite of crashing waves)

ULABY: Within the past few years we've had "Sunshine," "The Day After Tomorrow," and even a CBS miniseries about global warming that had hurricanes sweeping through Chicago and tornadoes tearing through Vegas.

(Soundbite of screaming)

ULABY: Expect remakes soon of movie like "The Swarm" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon," that blame pollution and climate change for monstrous mutants. Next year the science-fiction epic "Avatar," directed by James Cameron, will depict aliens and humans struggling for ecological survival.

Film scholar Kendall Phillips says these movies all have one idea in common.

Professor KENDALL PHILLIPS (Syracuse University): Somehow the planet has gone tired of us and we've kind of, we've overstayed our welcome and something bad is about to happen.

(Soundbite of Godzilla)

ULABY: Environmental horror pictures are nothing new. Think "Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster" from 1971. Phillips says eco-horror was common in the '70s, when moviegoers escaped worries about a gas crisis with disaster films like "Earthquake" and movies about mutant frogs, alligators and bears.

(Soundbite of growling and screaming)

ULABY: Horror always seems to reflect the anxieties of its time, says scholar Kendall Phillips. But unlike the creature features of the past, today's eco-horror movies, like "The Happening," see the whole world as malevolent and vengeful.

Prof. PHILLIPS: It's not that far a stretch from the old haunted house movies in which the house becomes kind of a character. So think of "The Amityville Horror"; now we're just expanding that so that literally the ecosphere plays that kind of menacing role.

ULABY: Wow, our planet is the haunted house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LARRY FESSENDEN (Filmmaker): The sad truth is that the world is going to become a more and more desperate place. It's going to look more and more like a zombie film as we go along.

ULABY: Independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden.

Mr. FESSENDEN: That's why I make horror films. I'm trying to say, wake up, people.

ULABY: Fessenden has been making environmentally-themed horror films for years. Animal testing or oil drilling are to him ideal subjects for the genre.

Mr. FESSENDEN: I can think of nothing more horrifying than the self-betrayal of destroying the very thing that you love, the very thing that nurtures you. And rather than make films about people killing their mothers, I make films about our sort of indescribable self-contempt that we would destroy the Earth that gives us life.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Last Winter")

Unidentified Actor: Why wouldn't the wilderness fight us, like any organism would fend off a virus?

ULABY: "The Last Winter" is a Fessenden film that takes place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. It's set in the near future and the government has just granted oil company workers permission to drill.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Last Winter")

Unidentified Actor: Ever since I got here, I could tell that there was something wrong. Not the job, not the cold, not being isolated. I'm telling you, I've seen something out there in the snow.

Mr. FESSENDEN: Oil is literally the crushed plant and animal life from millennia ago. And now we're burning that. We're burning these corpses. And naturally that suggests sort of a ghostly return, and we're desecrating graves.

ULABY: Larry Fessenden is now in talks with Leonardo DiCaprio's production company. DiCaprio last year produced a scary environmental documentary of his own, "The 11th Hour." Hollywood has a long way to go when it comes to its own environmentalism, says Fessenden. Film sets leave massive carbon footprints. But he hopes that eco-horror can affect the cultural conversation.

Mr. FESSENDEN: We don't want to be in a horror film. We don't want to wake up in a horrible super-storm. We don't want to have wars over the last drops of water. We don't want our shores inundated with environmental refugees. These are all potentially on our horizon. We don't want to live in a horror film. We want to go to them at the movies and then come out and have a sweet and beautiful life.

ULABY: After all, Fessenden says, what is a horror film but a cautionary tale?

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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