Fall headlong into the celestial void with Paul Anderson’s cult sci-fi horror
At first, you don’t suspect a thing. We open with the glorious vista that is the Paramount Pictures logo; its twenty-two stars soaring gracefully into shot and finding their classic place around the mountain, the sun settling into the beautiful harmony of early evening, the rarely-used studio theme sounding utterly triumphant and proud… it’s almost like the intro to a classic prestige picture. Then the music, instead of building to its expected conclusion, ebbs away. The Paramount/Viacom text disappears, leaving just the skyscape, and we start to move towards and then above the mountain. The shadows build, the sky darkens and then all of a sudden we’re in outer space. The music by Michael Kamen (and Orbital) has become a relentless attack of strings, the brass a warning siren, the synths eerily chilly, the electronic beats underneath making the infinite stretch of space feel awfully claustrophobic. And then, we see it. A beautiful, but frightening, deep-blue vortex, thunderously sucking the viewer (and the credits) into its dark centre. All of a sudden that pretty Paramount scenery from a few moments ago feels a long, long, long way away.
Welcome to Event Horizon.
Except we’re not quite done yet with what I consider to be one of the most effective and chilling openings to a horror ever. In a succinctly eerie opening text (appearing as though it’s being typed on a computer screen), we learn that in the year 2015 (remember, this was the future back in the summer of 1997), the moon has been colonised and 17 years after that Mars has become subject to commercial mining. Even further forward, in the year 2040, deep space research has advanced to the point where a colossus of a spacecraft named the ‘Event Horizon’ has set astral sail to explore further into the depths of space. In what is referred to as ‘the worst space disaster on record’, the ship and all its crew disappear somewhere past Neptune. Kamen’s music throughout this bit gives me the absolute goddamn shivers, I tell you. This is how you start a horror.
Except we’re still not quite done yet. With the final text alerting us that we’re in the year 2047, seven years after the Event Horizon vanished, we cut back to outer space, following a meteorite as it hurtles away from the sun, towards the screen and then past us, leaving us in full view of the truly spectacular and now reappeared ship, hovering over the stormy atmosphere of Neptune. We then go inside the vessel. The cavernous corridor we’ve emerged in looks like an eye that stretches back forever. The lighting – all queasy yellows, doomy reds and drowsy greens – is far from comforting. Various debris – a bottle of water, a book, a paper cup, a wrist watch – float aimlessly, occasionally knocking against each other. We then move away and into another part of the ship. There is a figure, floating and turning, in the distance. We move in closer and closer and closer until we see his screaming face, a face that looks like it’s been to Hell and back. We move into this man’s mouth, into the darkness within and then back out from the eye of Dr. Weir (Sam Neill), who’s just awoken from a dream in his room, a room covered with pictures of his late wife Clare. We then cut to Weir shaving. The bath tap is dripping water. He stops and stares at it. Something feels wrong. Very, very wrong.
Weir continues to shave. We expect him to maybe cut himself: this is the norm for anyone daring to shed facial hair in a horror movie. Instead, we cut to the very loud sound of the shutters opening outside his home (I bet a lot of people jumped out of their seats in the cinemas for this bit), a home which, as we see Weir walking around inside eating his breakfast, seems to be upside down. But then the camera spins around to reveal that Weir is on a space station. The camera continues to spin around as we retreat further and further (and further) back, taking in the sheer enormity of this structure, until we finally settle, and a radio message for Weir begins, telling him to report to the Lewis and Clark, the rescue ship where we’ll also be taking our seats for the start of the nightmare to follow.
Okay, now we can breathe a little. Event Horizon may not have been a hit on release, but its cult reputation has amassed considerably. One of the most brilliantly frightening major-studio horror movies of the 90s; in terms of sheer fasten-your-seatbelts-and-enjoy-the-ride, nasty fun, Paul Anderson’s intergalactic shocker has few equals. There’s a genuinely thrilling suspicion that the filmmakers didn’t realise just how far they were going with some of this stuff. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the more extreme content didn’t make it into the final cut, but more on that later.
Back to the story. The Event Horizon has suddenly reappeared near Neptune, so the salvage crew of the Lewis and Clark, led by the seemingly no-nonsense but actually deeply haunted Cpt. Miller (Laurence Fishburne), have their leave interrupted in order to investigate the ship’s disappearance. The rest of the crew are made up of super-efficient lieutenant Starck (Joely Richardson), homesick medical officer/’Mama Bear’ Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), engineer/’Baby Bear’ Justin (Jack Noseworthy), quietly intense doctor D.J (Jason Isaacs), smart-ass rescue technician Cooper (Richard T. Jones) and fed-up pilot Smitty (Sean Pertwee). They prepare to enter cryo-sleep for the 75-day trip to Neptune…
Dr. Weir: Captain… don’t do this.
Capt. Miller: It’s done.
Dr. Weir: What about my ship? You can’t just leave her!
Capt. Miller: I have no intention of leaving her, Doctor. I will take the Lewis and Clark to a safe distance, and then I will launch TAC missiles at the Event Horizon until I’m satisfied she’s vaporized. Fuck this ship!
Already we’re getting comfy reminders of Alien here – the bickering crew on a job they didn’t ask for, the cryo-sleep, the frustration of not being home – but also Aliens, with the presence of an outsider sent along to accompany the team, in this case Dr. Weir, who designed the Event Horizon and is being sent to see what happened to his creation. Weir reveals to the crew that the Event Horizon was actually, and secretly, capable of faster-than-light-speed travel – in a brilliant visual demonstration, and using a centrefold from Smitty’s stash of nudie mags, he pokes a hole at one end, folds the paper, and then pushes a pencil through the hole, which goes through the other half of the paper coming out the other side. This is how the ship is able to travel as fast as it does, by literally folding space so that the start and the end of the journey are at the same point, with the Event Horizon passing through the hole. Unfortunately, this resulted in the ship disappearing into the unknown and staying there until now. Where has it been? This is what the team are going to find out. They’ll all wish they hadn’t. Well, almost all of them.
Early omens come in the form of terrifying hallucinations. Weir is the first to be haunted by them – his wife, who we later discovered committed suicide, is visiting Weir to promise him of a blissful future, if only he just joins her. Sounds nice, except that she appears to him with no eyes. As the crew enter the Event Horizon, it becomes clear that the ship has been totally abandoned, ‘a tomb’, as Miller observes. He doesn’t know how right he is, as floating body parts, frozen corpses and walls decorated with lashings of gore soon prove. Soon, the hallucinations start to affect some of the other crew – Peters, desperately missing her family back home, is now starting to see her son running around the ship, or waiting solemnly in the medical bay with his legs covered in sores and maggots. Miller is visited by a burning man, who is the ghost of, or at least a manifestation of, one of his former crewmates who he left to die during a chaotic, tragic accident.
Then there’s the matter of the ship’s log, which starts off documenting normal, everyday business between the crew but then deteriorates into scrambled, disturbing footage that suggests something dreadful happened. D.J, fluent in Latin, thinks he hears the words ‘liberate me‘, or ‘save me’ in English. Also, there’s the core gravity drive, an astonishing, revolving orb that makes faster-than-light-speed travel possible. Why does it appear to turn on by itself, opening a pitch-black gateway that Justin can’t help but enter? Well, whatever he saw in there, it was enough to drive him temporarily insane to the point where he’s willing to end it all by walking out into space without a suit. By the time the ship’s log has been descrambled and we see footage of a frenzied, murderous orgy with the crew either fucking each other to death, killing each other with every and any implement within reach, or in some cases, removing their own eyes or pulling out their own internal organs through their mouth, its all too clear – ‘this is ship is fucked’.
So what the hell happened to this ship, and its crew? Well, Hell, literally. Seven years before, when the core gravity drive was turned on, instead of exploring the furthest reaches of the stars, the Event Horizon went beyond even there, to a place of unimaginable chaos and horror. Hell itself. Yet as one character later, terrifyingly puts it – ‘Hell is just a word. The reality is much worse.’ Plus, that ‘liberate me‘ soundbite D.J thought he heard earlier was really ‘liberate tutume ex infernis‘, or ‘save yourself from Hell’, and now that the Event Horizon has finally returned, it has brought back with it an unspeakable presence that seems to have possessed the ship itself. Driven insane by the realities of where his creation has gone to, Weir is consumed by an obsession to return to Hell and to take the crew with him.
Coming off the smash hit success of 1995’s Mortal Kombat, Paul Anderson had free reign to do what he wanted next, and after the junky, fun vibe of his last film, he wanted to go somewhere dark. Where better than outer space? A science-fiction junkie as a kid and likewise similarly obsessed with the horror likes of Kubrick’s The Shining, Anderson was drawn to Philip Eisner’s Event Horizon script but wasn’t keen on the original explanation for the hallucinations/manifestations being aliens. Instead he wanted to explore more horrific, unknowable, supernatural, even demonic territory. Working with Robert Wise’s classic chiller The Haunting in mind as a big influence, Event Horizon soon became the tale of a possessed ship, and it’s the religious, literally hellish element to the film that gives it its most terrifying edge.
With co-producer Lawrence Gordon allowing for lots of opportunity to experiment and go wild with his imagination, Anderson, fully intent on delivering an unforgettable visual experience, hired cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who had previously dreamed up the claustrophobic, intense look of Aliens and the gorgeous visual splendour of 1492: Conquest of Paradise, before he’d even cast any actors. If he was to create a visual knockout, it’s probably best to hire the person who was going to ultimately capture it all on film immediately. Then there was the exceptional Richard Yuricich on visual effects duties: having the man who worked on 2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner among others was one hell of a coup. The shot where we pull back from the space station at the start required miniature work so huge it could barely be classified as miniature.
One of the most integral contributors to the film’s artistic success was production designer Joseph Bennett, whose work Anderson had admired so much on Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (he’s also worked on Richard Stanley’s striking Hardware and Dust Devil). The Event Horizon itself is a classic of intricate design. Anderson wanted the ship to be a monster of religious overtones, something that would require huge sets and extraordinary detail. And that’s where the devil is, after all: in the details. The Notre Dame Cathedral was a major influence in the look of the ship, with its extended middle-section approximating an enormous aisle and its ‘altar’ situated at the end. The ship’s side thrusters were intentionally made to resemble the towers of the cathedral turned on their side. Impressive enough on the outside, it’s the interiors where the ship’s magnificence really becomes apparent. The spiked-edges of automatic doors, the claustrophobic passageways that make it look like you’re crawling inside a circuit board, the incredible sight of wonder that is the core gravity drive, the Gothic pillars in the medical bay, the eye-shaped aisle where mirrors were used to make it look like it stretched on forever… this is amazing, overwhelming visual stimuli.
Anderson believed that ‘what sells the horror is what you see in somebody’s eyes’, and here he struck gold with a roster of performers who really convince us of the terror. Fishburne is perfectly cast as Miller – he has the right blend of authority and vulnerability. It’s a solemn performance, but he nonetheless gets the biggest laugh of the film when, after he and the crew silently observe the video log with all of its horrors, he simply and succinctly says, once the tape ends, ‘we’re leaving’. I’m also a big fan of his ‘FUCK this ship!’ exclamation to a panicked Weir, who doesn’t want to leave his precious spacecraft.
Miller: Oh. My. God. What happened to your eyes?
Dr. Weir: Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.
Speaking of Weir, Neill gets to have the most fun here. Although he was well established as an actor specialising in villains/amoral types – he played the bloody AntiChrist in The Final Conflict, after all – for a lot of people he was probably still best known as the straight-laced Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. This performance must have been quite an eye-opener for audiences, especially when Weir literally takes out his own eyes (he won’t be needing them where he’s going) and then struts his demonic stuff, almost entirely nude and decorated with nasty, self-applied lacerations. The supporting cast all bounce each other nicely and naturally – just like the crew in Alien, I buy that they’ve been around each for a long time.
Event Horizon’s 80-90 day production was, for all its exciting execution of imagination, a challenge, with elaborate prosthetics (including an all-body cast for Neill), animatronics, complex and slow wire-work for the zero-gravity scenes (which were shot while the actors were wearing some very uncomfortable, heavy-duty space suits), sets that caught on fire… it was an intense shoot, but seemingly all worth it. Yet the real storm was to come; that of the film’s nightmarish post-production.
Paramount were demanding the film be released ahead of schedule (to compensate for the delayed completion of James Cameron’s Titanic), so Anderson, with only four weeks of dedicated final cut time (as opposed to the average ten weeks) to deliver the assembled goods, hastily put together a 130-minute cut (featuring, among other things, a bad sound mix and incomplete FX) that utterly repulsed test audiences with its extreme gore and lengthy running time. Anderson was then further coerced by an appalled Paramount into delivering a rushed, shorter and less grotesque final cut with an ending that was actually a combination of two previously finished climaxes. The one and only officially released, available version of Event Horizon was, by Anderson’s admission, a too-short rush-job that he feels wasn’t properly attended to in order to fix its problems. Certainly, I feel that its final act in particular, for all its mighty terrors, doesn’t quite hit the spot like it should. By removing scenes that, on the surface, might have felt unnecessary to the plot but were likely very important in enhancing the atmosphere, Event Horizon might work brilliantly as a quick, wham-bam Friday night rollercoaster ride but it sure could have used a bit more breathing space.
Some of the film’s deleted material did surface on special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases, but the unholy grail of footage that has yet to reappear involves the full-length sequences depicting the fate of both old and new crews of the Event Horizon. The notorious video log scene, of which we only see a brief snippet in the final cut, was the result of 4-5 weeks of prep and a whole week’s shooting. As we can see from what made it into the film, it’s a ghastly parade of obscenities and sexualised violence, filmed using real-life amputees as the dismembered crew as well as adult film stars for the sex stuff.
Likewise, there’s the Hell scenes, which present our team of heroes subjected to all kinds of painful torture with the gravity core drive as the grim, overwhelming backdrop. The crew are wrapped in barbed wire, splattered with blood, torn apart, covered in maggots… Painstakingly staged to resemble, among other artists, the more nightmarish end of the works of Brueghel or Bosch, it’s the kind of stuff you may regret going back to and freeze-framing your copy of to get a better look. These scenes were challenging for the actors; a lot of work was put into them and yet we barely see any of it in the final cut. It could be argued that what we do see is all the more effective for being so brief (they are very effectively presented as rapidly edited visions), but at the same time, knowing that a lot more of that footage exists makes us horror fans naturally, if cautiously, want to see more.
At the time of writing, a special edition Blu-ray of Event Horizon is due for release in North America. Above all else, the special feature that everybody wants to see is the deleted extreme footage – if it were to be re-integrated into the film, even better. In some ways, Event Horizon is the 1990s equivalent of Michael Mann’s The Keep, another film with a troubled post-production that was released in imperfect final form. Yet despite the frustrations and the what-ifs that Anderson’s film can’t help but bring out in some of us, it’s still a hell of a ride, even in this truncated version. It’s a great film. But it could have been an amazing one.