December 18, 2014
Ever since George Méliès’ groundbreaking 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, science fiction has been one of the campier genres in movie history. The silliness ran rampant throughout the fifties, with alien invasion movies like Robot Monster and The Man from Planet X inspiring more amusement than terror. In the late seventies, Ridley Scott’s Alien flipped the script on the sci-fi label, stripping the corniness away and turning it into a genre that could really scare people. In 1997, another pivotal movie in the sci-fi horror world was released, the absolutely horrifying Event Horizon.
Set in the year 2047, Event Horizon is about a spacecraft, appropriately called the Event Horizon, which is powered by a device called a gravity drive that allows it to travel from one point in the galaxy to another instantaneously. The ship runs into trouble just beyond Neptune, and the search and rescue ship U.S.A.C Lewis & Clark, commanded by Captain Miller (The Matrix’s Laurence Fishburne), is sent to investigate. Along with his regular crew of medics and engineers, Captain Miller brings along Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill from Jurassic Park), the scientist who designed and built the Event Horizon and its gravity drive. When the Lewis & Clark arrives on the scene, they find the ship deserted. After searching the ship and going through the logs, Captain Miller and his crew realize that the Event Horizon has been to hellish places during its travels…and the ship does not want to let them leave.
When writer Philip Eisner (Firestarter 2: Rekindled) first pitched Event Horizon to the studio execs, he described it as “The Shining in space.” That’s actually a fairly accurate description. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (who also made the Resident Evil movies) picked up what Eisner was throwing down, combining horrifying imagery with maddening suspense to provide Event Horizon with an Alien meets Hellraiser type of vibe. The film is definitely more of a ghost story than an alien movie, and that’s why it’s so damn scary; it’s really a demonic possession movie that happens to take place in space. The spacecraft uses the rescue crews’ weaknesses against them, getting into their heads to cause them to defeat themselves. For example, the ship causes Captain Miller to hallucinate about an old crew member of his that he let die in a fire. Likewise, Dr. Weir sees visions of his dead wife, a woman whose suicide has left him racked with guilt. The spaceship is basically a haunted house, much like Hill House in The Haunting or The Belasco House in The Legend of Hell House. Event Horizon is essentially a very ambitious ghost movie.
Paul W.S. Anderson assembled a great group of actors and actresses for Event Horizon. The talented cast had enough star power to add clout to the film, but not enough to make the movie seem like a vehicle for any one performer. Besides Neill and Fishburne, the ensemble includes Joely Richardson (“Nip/Tuck”), Kathleen Quinlan (Twilight Zone: The Movie), Richard T. Jones (Godzilla), Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers), Jack Noseworthy (Cecil B. DeMented), and Jason Isaacs (who would go on to play Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies). The cast displays a remarkable amount of chemistry, helping to add a human aspect to a very mechanical film. In one of the most memorable scenes, Jack Noseworthy’s character walks into an airlock while under the Event Horizon’s control and hits the open button. He snaps out of his trance and sees what he has done while the airlock’s timer counts down. Kathleen Quinlan’s character, who affectionately calls him “Baby Bear,” soothingly talks to him while the rest of the crew races against time to override the automatic airlock controls. Meanwhile, Fishburne’s Captain Miller prepares for the worst outside the ship, all while the door’s timer ticks away the seconds. Event Horizon is full of great teamwork scenes like that one, segments that show off the skill and talent of the cast as a whole. No egos, just a group of thespians working well together in order to make Event Horizon as believable of a film as one set in the orbit of Neptune can be.
The promotional trailer for Event Horizon is one of the most misleading previews in horror history. The clip alludes to the ghostly presence on the ship, but downplays the frightening aspects of the film, making it look like a space opera along the lines of Star Trek or Lost in Space. The movie starts with an upbeat techo dance number, further misleading the audience. It’s only when the music fades and the first scene begins that the viewer gets an idea of the terrors that await them in Event Horizon – and by then, it’s too late to turn back.
As horrifying as Event Horizon is, director Paul W.S. Anderson’s initial vision for the film was much worse. His original version of the film was about 30 minutes longer than the one that hit theaters, and had much more graphic violence and gore. This first cut received the dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and the studio requested that Anderson edit his film for both length and content. Anderson relented, removing some of the more disturbing scenes and getting the running time down to about 100 minutes. The new cut was given an R rating, and the studio was happy, but Anderson was not. Reportedly, the cut footage has been lost, so there is little chance of a director’s cut of Event Horizon surfacing.
Anderson’s cinematic inspirations are squarely on display in Event Horizon. There is an obvious Hellraiser influence to the film; the gravity drive to the Event Horizon looks and moves much like Clive Barker’s film’s puzzle box, and the demons that show up resemble a poor-man’s tribe of cenobites. The filmic quotes don’t stop at Hellraiser, either. The blood-elevator scene in The Shining is imitated. The log files to the Event Horizon resemble the video diaries found in another Sam Neill film, Dead Calm. Joely Richardson’s character quotes a line directly from Disney’s The Black Hole, calling black holes “the most destructive force in the universe.” Eagle-eyed viewers might even see an X-Wing fighter from Star Wars as part of the undercarriage structure of the Event Horizon. Although none of them make Event Horizon seem like a rip-off or a mash-up, Anderson placed plenty of fun Easter eggs throughout his movie to keep the cinephiles busy.
The music in Event Horizon is a slick combination of traditional orchestral film scoring and modern electronic trance music. Initially, Paul W.S. Anderson wanted the score to be done by electronic dance music duo Orbital (the stage name of brothers Phil and Paul Hartnell), who had contributed music to Anderson’s 1995 movie Mortal Kombat. However, some of the more cinematic sections were scored by A-list film composer Michael Kamen (Lifeforce, The Dead Zone), and Anderson meshed the two sounds together into a fun mix of the two distinct styles. As theatrical as the incidental music is, the main theme to the film is pure EDM: a track called “Funky Shit” by techo group The Prodigy that samples both The Beastie Boys and the theme from “S.W.A.T.” into one space-age party song. Whether it’s the theme song or the actual score, the music to Event Horizon is fresh and modern, and remains so even almost twenty years after its release.
Although modern sci-fi movies can still be campy, there exists an entire subgenre of sci-fi horror that is truly terrifying. Event Horizon didn’t single-handed create this subgenre, but it sure as hell is a top-notch addition to it.