I first watched director Paul W.S. Anderson's gory sci-fi horror flick 'Event Horizon' back around 1997 or 1998. My vague memories of the film included: the shoddiness of the computer animated effects, Sam Neill's role being a long way from Dr Alan Grant in 'Jurassic Park', and that the movie itself wasn't very scary.
Since 2020: Monster Fest announced it would be screening the film (which has since taken on "cult movie" status) in 4K, I decided to revisit it. Now that I'm more cinema literate, I can definitely say that 'Event Horizon' still isn't a good film. The difference is that I can pinpoint why it sucks, and also identify the stuff that I genuinely enjoy about it.
When the Event Horizon, a spacecraft that vanished years earlier with its entire crew, suddenly reappears in 2047, a team is dispatched to investigate the ship. Accompanied by the Event Horizon's creator, William Weir (Sam Neill), the crew of the Lewis and Clark, led by Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), begins to explore the seemingly abandoned vessel. However, it soon becomes evident that something sinister resides in its corridors. The crew finds evidence of a massacre and some recorded rantings in Latin. Later, they begin to experience traumas from their past that only they can see.
It seems that the Event Horizon's experimental gravity drive has tapped into a gateway to hell. Or a chaos dimension. Or a black hole. Or... something. Anyway, this means that the ship has developed the supernatural power to exploit the guilt and fears of characters who keep their feelings close to the surface, like Kathleen Quinlan's med tech, Peters, who has visions of the wheelchair-bound son she's left behind on Earth, as well as those whose hang-ups are deeply concealed, like Miller, who's haunted by a dead crew member he was forced to abandon many missions ago. Worst of all is Weir, who remains obsessed with the ship he created, his workaholic ways contributing to his wife's suicide.
'Event Horizon' is frustrating to watch because it shoots so high and falls so hard. Anderson's literal pitch for the movie was "'The Shining' in space". In actuality, he took Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Solaris', Clive Barker's 'Hellraiser' and Ridley Scott's 'Alien' and unceremoniously chucked them in a blender.
Sci-fi horror can sometimes feel like an odd fit. The latter genre is more often rooted in the past than the future, better suited to organic fears than technological nightmares - hence the tendency to simply use the science fiction as window dressing for an old-fashioned monster movie. 'Alien' is a haunted house movie... and 'Event Horizon' is too, but in a very different way. If anything, 'Event Horizon' does the "haunted house in space" thing better than 'Alien', although both use settings (or ships) like characters. This characterisation of a ship is taken much further in 'Event Horizon', the titular ship effectively becoming the antagonist. In 'Alien', the creature plays that role, although the haunted house feeling is still present, thanks to the use of setting.
The minimal (by today's standards) CGI is as rough as you'd expect from 1997, but the production values and miniatures, like the crucifix-shaped ship, are top-notch. 'Event Horizon' looks wonderful on larger format displays. Several of the space scenes are very disorienting and, overall, I think it's one of those movies made to be experienced in a theatre atmosphere. Big screen, reclined seating, booming audio.
The set designs are fascinating. The ship itself, more than the places it's been or the people who have died on it, is the true evil here. Its gravity drive spins and shudders and harbours a sludgy pool, while its bulkheads are draped with fleshy pink growths. It always makes me laugh when the team crosses from the smooth, functional, ergonomic forward sections of the ship, walk through the "meat grinder" tunnel of whirling gears, and come out in the Gothic nightmare dungeon of the gravity drive room. What's up with all the spikes? As it turns out, they're literally just there because they look awesome. The spikes were originally supposed to be a working part of the gravity drive, but Anderson either had technical issues or lacked the budget to make the effect work so he scrapped the idea, but kept the spikes as part of the set for the visual effect. You half-expect to see Cenobites hanging around in the dark corners with flesh hooks at the ready.
The one truly perfect moment of dialogue is where Fishburne watches the full broadcast of a murder orgy (a scene featuring real-life amputees and pornographic film actors), turns it off, and calmly says, "We're leaving."
One of the key aspects of the film was that the characters who embark on the mission are drawn from all over the world, and maybe the greatest crime 'Event Horizon' commits is how it fails to fully utilise some great actors. Aside from post-'Jurassic Park' Sam Neill, you have skinny pre-'Matrix' Laurence Fishburne (who brings gravitas to lines like, "This ship is a tomb!"), a veritable Swiss Army knife actor in Jason Isaacs (seriously, the guy has done everything, and he's got a fucking law degree too), always likeable Sean Pertwee, gorgeous Joely Richardson and so on. All are mostly wasted in their overly archetypal roles.
Neill fares the worst of all of them, delivering spiels that either summarise the plot of the film thus far, or explain what is going to happen. For example, to explain the Event Horizon's mysterious gravity drive (which "creates a dimensional gateway" via a black hole, allowing it to zip from one point in the universe to another), Weir folds a page from a nudie mag in half and punches a hole in each side. The final confrontation between Weir and Miller, aside from having Looney Tunes-style sound effects, takes what should be a terrifying climax and removes all tension. "Oh, you want to know why I'm doing X?" Weir asks. "Well it's because Y, and also Z." The entire conflict of the film is summarised in a handful of monologues.
Perhaps the one truly perfect moment of dialogue is where Fishburne watches the full broadcast of a murder orgy (a scene featuring real-life amputees and pornographic film actors that was edited down in length), turns it off, and calmly says, "We're leaving." Then again, the film also features maybe the most honest reaction to a supernatural menace in an outer space movie ever: "FUCK THIS SHIP!" (from Richard T. Jones, who plays rescue technician Cooper).
'Event Horizon' suffered from studio interference, with great chunks of gore removed to appease test audiences and the MPAA. Character development went, too. It takes ages to decide whether Weir is a supposed to be a good guy or a baddie, what his relationship with his wife is and why she committed suicide. We needed to see the characters earlier in order to establish their situations so that later when the ship is fucking with their minds, we understand why that hurts them. Too many plot points are tossed away in the form of random dialogue for anything to be coherent. Relationships are never established and character traits are never rooted down, so instead we're treated to one random device after another. It's like we're supposed to figure it all out for ourselves. The director has said that the film would benefit by the restoration of around 10 minutes of footage, but it feels like it would need another 50 minutes to fill in the gaps.
Paul W.S. Anderson attempted to locate the ghostly scares in the machine, and while his film served up cool imagery and a charismatic cast, the execution was lacking. It's never boring, but it struggles to rise above the studio edits and uneven handling of the material. Still, you shouldn't feel too guilty for enjoying the mood, cruelty, gore, aesthetics and crackerjack premise of 'Event Horizon', even if some of the effects are a touch hokey nowadays.