Fear Flashback Friday: ‘Event Horizon’

Fear Flashback Friday is a semi-regular review column of classic and not-so-classic horror films/books/TV shows. “Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.”

Event Horizon was directed by  Paul WS Anderson, a director I think of as the poor man’s Michael Bay. His films are always fast, slick, and filled with interesting things to look at. They’re also slightly, I dunno,  soulless. He doesn’t have quite the knack for marrying spectacle, camera work and music that Bay does, so he’s never had a budget comparable to, say, Armageddon or any of the Transformers films. At least we’ve never had to deal with Anderson’s version of Pearl Harbor, so there’s that. (Though he did do Pompeii, which I admit I haven’t seen…)

Rambling.

With all of that you’d think I hated Anderson’s movies, but I actually quite like them. Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Aliens vs Predator, Death Race – I always feel like I at least got my money’s worth. To answer Maximus’ rhetorical question – yes, I AM entertained. And if the films are never that deep or satisfying beyond the spectacle, well, I’ve had worse. I’ve seen Battlefield Earth, my friends. In the theater.

The horror… the… horror…

 

I think Event Horizon is Anderson’s most ambitious and interesting film, and it came at a time when horror films – good horror films – felt really hard to come by. 1997 was the year of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Anaconda , after all. Horror felt pretty thin on the ground in general in the 90’s – certainly compared to the almost fevered pitch of releases in the 1980’s. All of that is to say I wasn’t expecting much when I went to the theater, and I often have a higher opinion of a movie that surprises me in that way than I would otherwise. It lets me gloss over the flaws in plot and production that I might not let go if I had high expectations.

And man, was I surprised. Oppressive, gory, dark, unsettling, full of good performances by decent actors. I thought it was one of the better horror films I’d seen in the 1990’s – and I still do. I MAY have seen it in the theater a couple of times. Maybe.

The Medium

I recently came across the Blu-ray of Event Horizon at a discount outlet – sandwiched between 18 copies of Grumpy Old Men 2. (They also had a copy of Iron Giant, so I snagged that as well.) It’s a decent replacement for my 2006 ‘Special Edition’ DVD, with good picture quality and (as far as I can tell) all of the extras ported over.

It’s available for rental on the usual places, but I don’t see it as part of any streaming service free offerings at the moment.

The Movie

The crew of the rescue ship Lewis & Clarke is outbound to Neptune, on a long-haul mission to investigate the fate of another ship – the eponymous Event Horizon. Also on board is Dr. Weir (Sam Neil), the man who designed and built the ship. Weir reveals that Event Horizon – publicly declared destroyed in a terrible accident – was actually fitted with an experimental gravity drive. The ship engaged the drive and disappeared 7 years ago – now it’s back and they have to find out what happened to the ship and its crew.

They stopped cleaning the place, that’s one thing.

 

Considering this film was greenlit something like 10 weeks before the start of production I’d say the production design is pretty damn good. Event Horizon itself, both inside and out, has an oppressive, gothic feel. I especially like the bridge, with its massive pillars and tall, thin windows. It looks vaguely like a cathedral, and not unlike the main ship in one of my other guilty favorites – The Black Hole. The gravity drive itself is baroque and impressive – and this time around I found myself thinking about how much it looks like something out of Hellraiser. The entire set seems to weigh down on the actors and the extensive use of floor lighting exacerbates this, creating a looming darkness above.

The actors do a decent job with the lines they’re given and they’ve all created distinct, interesting characters. There are quite a few of them and I was never once confused as to who was who.( I’ll watch Sean Pertwee in just about anything, FYI.)

“What about…” Yes. Even that.

 

At the time Event Horizon came out I would tell people it was the most Lovecraftian non-Lovecraft film I’d ever seen, and I think that assessment still holds up. The ship has been ‘beyond’ and is not the same when it comes back. Through the gate is something too much for human comprehension – it’s Something Man Was Not Meant To Know. There’s a great little bit of dialogue when Justin is pulled back from the ‘gateway’:

“He’s coming!”

“Who’s coming?”

“The Dark.”

I loved that line. Having recently re-watched Prince of Darkness I found myself wishing the black ‘gateway’ was instead a green, roiling mass of fluid – that would have been a perfect homage in a film that feels full of them. In addition to the Hellraiser ‘puzzle box’ look of the gravity drive there’s the chains and gore that wouldn’t be out of place in Pinhead’s version of Hell. There’s a flood of blood straight out of The Shining. I also felt like there were a number of bits intended to reference Alien/Aliens – with dialogue (“we’re 5×5”) and scenes like Peters coming up from a ladder in the floor like Ripley (when she’s chasing after the apparition of her son).

Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

 

I also enjoyed the way the ship terrorizes the crew of the Lewis & Clarke. The random noises and gore are part of that – I liked the nod to The Haunting of Hill House with the incredibly loud noise coming closer – but it’s the psychological torture that works best. It’s their failures that it uses and if they aren’t always very effective to US, that’s more the fault of the filmmaker than the story. I just wish they’d followed up on it with all the characters – What’s DJs secret shame? Stark’s? I like the bits with Justin being controlled into the airlock, but I always thought he should have died and have had THAT been the failure that weighs on Miller, but ah well.

In the end the movie falls down a little because we’re not given enough to really identify with these characters. I know that seems at odds with my saying they’re distinct and interesting, but there’s miles of difference between that and actually giving a damn about what happens to them. There’s a lot of crude, hurry up and sell the situation sort of stuff to try and shortcut an emotional connection, but it doesn’t work (for me). As an example: the first time we see Weir he’s waking from a nightmare. Next to the bed are pictures of a woman who we take to be his wife. He pulls a picture off the wall, sits up and touches it while saying “Claire.” It’s just clumsy. It breaks belief that this guy would pull the picture off the wall, sit there and say his wife’s name aloud. Let him reach over, touch the picture, pause, get out of bed. We’ll get it. Let the actor sell the sadness and loss without being so crass about it – Sam Neill’s more than capable.

Also, why is there a loft in a spaceship?

 

An example of them getting it right: when Weir is introduced to the crew they go around the table telling him who they are and what they do – there’s some clumsy stuff here too – but when they get to DJ he just looks up and says, “Trauma.” His crewmates burst into laughter and DJ acts a bit put out. That tells us LOADS about DJ, the crew and their relationship. THAT is a great way to get us into the characters – not monologues about the guy they left behind.

Some of that stuff may have ended up on the cutting room floor when test audiences didn’t respond well to Anderson’s original cut. There was certainly more backstory for Cooper and Justin – the two characters who get the shortest shrift in the current version. There was also significantly more gore – including an extended sequence of the original crew in ‘hell.’ Alas, that footage seems to have been discarded and we may never get a true ‘director’s cut.’

On the other hand, maybe that’s for the best…

The Bottom Line

Even with the flaws I still enjoy the hell out of Event Horizon. It’s got an amazing set, good special effects, decent characters and great atmosphere. It’s The Shining in space via Hellraiser with a little Alien thrown in.