20 years ago, I found Event Horizon immensely enjoyable. Sam Neill headlining a great cast. Gorgeous sets and model effects. A fusion of gothic horror and science fiction. It was visually arresting, atmospheric, and fast-moving. What was there not to like? I was, apparently at odds with the majority of my fellow cinema-goers…
In Event Horizon, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) describes its future-gothic version of hell as “a dimension of pure chaos.” Director Paul (W.S) Anderson may well have used the same term to describe the film’s beleaguered production. As a fledgling director with just two features, Shopping (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995), under his belt, he must have found it daunting to be approached by Paramount with a budget exceeding $50 million, especially with a tight deadline because of the Titanic problems the studio was facing with another disaster movie involving a big ship…
The story follows a rescue and salvage mission sent to investigate the mysterious reappearance of the Event Horizon, an experimental space vessel thought lost in the ‘the worst space disaster on record’. The Event Horizon was fitted with a revolutionary drive that harnesses the forces of an artificial black hole, enabling it to folding space and travel from one point to another as if faster than light. A theory based on the phenomenon known as quantum tunnelling. But when the drive was brought online, the ship promptly disappeared and was presumed destroyed. So, where has it been in the intervening seven years? It went somewhere… and it came back.
Anderson was sucked-in by the idea of a “haunted house in space”, with aliens replacing ghosts. It was closely aligned with ideas he was already developing, so he made room in his schedule by declining to direct a Mortal Kombat sequel, the fourth Alien movie, and an adaptation of X-Men. Then he set about retooling Philip Eisner’s script with more supernatural emphasis, replacing the corporeal aliens with a metaphysical ‘consciousness’ that ‘possesses’ the vessel.
He also unashamedly injected multiple references to classics of both the horror and sci-fi genres, hoping to win the affections of hardcore fans who’d enjoy spotting these homages. This genre-remix approach was a fresh one in the 1990s, following Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). You only have to listen to the music of that decade to know this was a major meme running through the contemporary culture. The choice of electro-fusion band Orbital (to provide much of the music for Event Horizon), and the use of the Prodigy track “Funky Shit” over the end titles, are no accidents…
Remember the sequence when a powerful, yet invisible presence stalks the ship with terrifyingly loud creaks and groans, just like the unseen, menacing presence in Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963)… before it bashes impressive dents into a very solid-looking metal door, in similar fashion to the ‘Monster from the Id’, in Fred McLeod Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956)? Of course, you do!
It’s made clear from the start that Weir is haunted by remorse over the suicide of his wife, and is visited by her ‘ghost’ in several disturbing scenes. Similar dreams and visions are visited upon the central characters involving ‘dead’ people. The question is, are they souls returning from an ‘afterlife’ or revisited memories? There’s a suggestion that the spirit of the ship itself is drawing upon the subconscious of each character, in an attempt to create a tailor-made environment for them. Unfortunately, the memories they tend to dwell on are those fuelled by guilt and regrets. This is a heavy-handed swipe at similar concepts explored, much more poetically, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic, Solaris (1972). The anorak may not be red, but the fleeting glimpses of her son luring Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) to her final doom are almost a direct visual quote of the chilling finale of Nick Roeg’s iconic giallo, Don’t Look Now (1973).
From its elongated connecting gantry, to the capsules for the crew to sleep in during flight, the look of the Event Horizon owes much to Douglas Trumbull’s design for Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But it’s all trimmed and finished in gun-metal black instead of ’60s sci-fi white. When Weir attempts to shut-down the gravity drive by entering the circuit maintenance conduits, we may well wonder what dark and disturbing nursery rhyme it will recite instead of “Daisy, Daisy”.
The search and rescue vessel, Lewis & Clark, could easily have been built in the same yard as the Nostromo from Alien (1979), and it’s not difficult to imagine those two crews hanging-out together. Prior to their arrival at Neptune, banter on the Lewis & Clark bridge sketches-in the character’s backstories, albeit with broad strokes, and this recalls similar scenes on board the Nostromo. Oh, and there’s another nod to Dan O’Bannon and Ron Cobb when Cooper (Richard T. Jones) indulges in some Dark Star (1974)-style space debris surfing!
Event Horizon has been summed-up as “Hellraiser in space”–and that gives audiences a fair idea about what to expect. The set design repeatedly references Hellraiser’s famous puzzle box, and the glimpses of ‘hell’ give the distinct impression that Cenobites are the new management. Instead of a familiar ‘domestic’ setting, it’s the technological, ‘cold-but-safe’ environment that’s inexorably ripped apart. It’s cutting-edge science, not ancient magic, that opens a doorway to a dimension with the potential to be claimed by good or evil, to affirm or deny life. The boundaries between science and religion are smudged. Parallels arise between the theory of quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and the ancient magickal ideas of astral spheres. In both films, the overall narratives follow a Dante-esque ‘descent into the inferno’.
However, this impeccably curated, post-modern blend of established tropes spurred most of the negative comments in what were mostly poor reviews at the time. Critics simply saw the movie as clumsy and derivative. It flopped at the box office, struggling to earn back half its $60 million production budget. Anderson must have been profoundly disappointed, but could seek solace in the fact that what the critics saw was far removed from his original vision.
After three disastrous test screenings and three subsequent re-cuts, entire scenes had been jettisoned and new sequences staged, shot, and re-shot. With the delivery schedule tightening like a noose and mounting pressure from the studio (including a suggestion to edit for a PG-13), the original 130-minute cut had, eventually, been hacked down to 96-minutes for theatrical release. What wound up in cinemas was as mutilated as any poor character trapped in the movie’s hellish dimension of pure chaos…
With my recent re-watching, I still found Event Horizon a rewarding experience. Sure, there are problems with the dialogue, as many a review has pointed out. To modern aficionados of sci-fi, Dr. Weir’s techno-jargon makes enough sense, and it seems odd the highly-trained crew are completely baffled and incredulous. Much of the dialogue does sound like it’s been lifted from comic-book speech balloons, but the capable cast dish it out convincingly. Laurence Fishburne gives a quietly powerful portrayal of Captain Miller, Joely Richardson gives us a gutsy female lead in Lt. Stark, and the always watchable Sam Neill draws on the insanity of his marvellous performance for In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Jason Isaacs also turns in a beautifully underplayed supporting role as DJ, delivering the key line “save yourself… from Hell”.
The greenscreen effects haven’t dated too badly over the decades, and make the most of some beautiful models. But, for me, the appeal lies mainly in the milieu. It’s no accident that Event Horizon comes close to being the definitive Futuregoth vehicle. Production designer Joseph Bennett ensured the sets resembled the vaulted catacombs of Notre Dame Cathedral, with pillars flaring upwards to meet the curve of walls. He reasoned that, just as the pillars of stone were constructed to support the immense weight of the edifice above, so the structure of this spaceship would have to withstand the massive stress of passing through dimensional folds. The resulting gothic atmosphere permeates the entire film. There are coffin-shaped doorways, crucifix-shaped windows, and even the gravity drive itself looks like a medieval torture chamber. The emergency lighting also creates a moody environment, swathed with evocative shadows. This was a pioneering fusion of science fiction and gothic aesthetics for its time, and prefigured the later spread of steampunk.
Since its box-office disaster, Event Horizon has redeemed itself to become a cult favourite, and is widely recognised as a highlight of Anderson’s very uneven filmography. There’s been talk of a ‘director’s cut’ for many years, but it’s unlikely to ever materialise. The studio didn’t keep the unused footage. Plenty of deleted scenes are included as extras in the Special Edition DVD release, but they survived only as offline video edits, so can’t be used to assemble a restored cut. Appropriately enough, they were rescued from storage in a Transylvanian salt mine, and clearly show the earlier versions to be far more visceral. The studio execs had baulked at scenes of cannibalism, sodomy, and oceans of gore, as it was certainly not the PG-13 material they were hoping for. Anderson was forced to compromise and mount his own rescue mission, by salvaging the movie from its black hole of budget and time constraints. It was finally rated R by the MPAA, only narrowly escaping an NC-17.
Perhaps, when the current penchant for remaking cult classics from the 1970s and 1980s starts looking to the 1990s, some studio executive will remember Event Horizon and give Anderson a second chance to make the movie it really should’ve been. Until then, we can appreciate the version we have, for what it is, despite the compromises. Just sit back and enjoy a little descent into Hollywood Hell…
Cast & Crew
director: Paul W.S Anderson.
writer: Philip Eisner.
starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Sean Pertwee, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy & Noah Huntley.