ABCs of Horror: “E” Is for Event Horizon (1997)

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ABCs of Horror: “E” Is for Event Horizon (1997)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

Sometimes, all it takes for a tired concept to be reinvigorated is a change of scenery. Take the classic haunted house movie, for instance. Set it in a crumbling, seaside gothic mansion, and it’s something we’ve all seen a hundred times before. Set your door to hell in an abandoned slab of a starship orbiting Neptune, however, and you’ve got something else entirely. And that something else is Event Horizon.

It’s an odd beast of a film, there’s no doubt about that, and one that has drawn comparison to numerous other properties. At the time of release, reviewers couldn’t help but describe it as “The Shining in space.” It’s also been called a more accurate Doom adaptation than either of the live-action films actually based on the game Doom, or a secret prequel to the grim spacefaring setting presented in Warhammer 40,000. One thing is certain: The chaos captured on screen mirrors the chaotic events that brought Event Horizon to life.

This was a troubled, rushed film shoot, which resulted in a product that wasn’t well received when it hit theaters in 1997. Fresh off the surprise box office smash that was Mortal Kombat, it was meant to be a passion project for director Paul W. S. Anderson, years before he would become exclusively associated with bad videogame adaptations. Studio meddling from Paramount has often been blamed in the years to follow, including a mere four-week period in which Anderson was reportedly forced to assemble his original cut of the film. That cut was then hacked down considerably, taking the runtime from 130 minutes to a brisk 96. Much of what was removed apparently consisted of additional effects and gore shots—impressive, given how many still remain in the film.

It’s a testament to those aspects of Event Horizon that work, then, that the film was even still legible in the state in which it was finally released. It benefits immeasurably from the cold, malevolent presence of its Alien-like starship sets, which feel uniquely inhospitable and pitiless. There’s just something about that derelict spacecraft and the mystery of its massacred crew that is inescapably compelling—it becomes one of those films where the mythology of its story arguably possesses more lasting power than any of the actual events on screen, in much the same way as Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo discovering the downed alien spacecraft on LV-426. Here, Event Horizon wisely chooses not to spell out a ton to the audience, leaving the nature of the ship’s journey outside the known universe largely to one’s own interpretation, which also helps to give these proceedings a certain Lovecraftian flair—that theme of man stepping over the precipice, into a world that is too vast and terrifying to comprehend.

With that said, the film is also a pretty damn silly haunted house ride in the way that studio horror films of its era often were, rife with screeching jump scare sound effects, which clash in a startling way with an over-the-top level of realistic gore that earned the first cut of the film the dreaded NC-17 rating. The herky jerky tone could be interpreted as either a pitfall or a feature, given the disorienting effect it has on the audience, as Event Horizon careens between popcorn thriller, science fiction mystery and grossout gore spectacle. At a time when the horror genre wasn’t exactly at its strongest, you could say that Anderson was doing some yeoman’s work in pushing the boundaries as much as he tried to do.

The biggest tool in the film’s arsenal, beyond the strength of that nebulous mythology, is the duo of Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, who anchor the story with their diametrically opposed embraces of heroism and madness in the face of one terrible revelation after another. Neill in particular seems to relish this opportunity to completely abandon subtlety, becoming the living arch-fiend conduit to the forces of an endless hellscape in the process. By the time he’s prowling the ship as a scarred, eyeless mass of inchoate flesh, it becomes clear that Event Horizon will be taking no half measures.

Today, the film enjoys a fairly sizable cult of admirers—certainly the most widely enjoyed in the oeuvre of Paul W. S. Anderson, except for partially ironic appreciation of Mortal Kombat. It may even return from the depths of hell before too long, as an Event Horizon TV series was reportedly in the works at Amazon before the global pandemic made production schedules particularly unreliable. Is a continuation of this story still gestating in the dark recesses of production hell as we speak? Will they make the mistake of concretely answering the film’s lingering questions, removing the mystique and mythology that helped give Event Horizon its erratic but effective identity? And is Sam Neill up for another round of eyeball gouging?

If he is, pay the guy whatever he wants—it’ll be the one thing in a revisit of Event Horizon that is guaranteed to be great.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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