Event Horizon isn’t exactly original, but it is terrifying, and that meant something in 1997. By then, sci-fi was experiencing a slight renaissance, what with Barry Sonnenfield’s quirky buddy cop comedy Men in Black and Luc Besson’s stunning magnum opus The Fifth Element, but director Paul W.S. Anderson offered another spin on the genre: he re-introduced it to horror. Working from a script by Philip Eisner, who penned a haunted house movie set in space and indebted to ghostly jaunts like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Anderson wielded a brand of deep space terror that went far beyond any venomous extraterrestrials and went straight to hell.
Though, hell is only a word, as Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) explains to Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) during the film’s fiery finale, and its reality is much, much worse. It’s also incredibly painful, as most evangelicals will gladly tell you, and that was an area that Anderson knew all too well. The English filmmaker had just finished adapting Mortal Kombat, aka the most controversial and violent video game of its time, and seeing how that film was only PG-13, he was jonesing to make an R-rated feature. In fact, he was so enthralled by the opportunity that he turned down offers to direct the Mortal Kombat sequel, Fox’s long-gestating X-Men, and that year’s Alien: Resurrection.
Wise choice, seeing how Mortal Kombat: Annihilation sucked, Bryan Singer was always the right choice for Marvel’s band of mutants, and Event Horizon was in every way, shape, and form a better (and more truer) Alien movie than Alien: Resurrection. It was like Anderson and Eisner took all the strongest elements from Ridley Scott’s original film, from the patient tension to the uncompromising stakes, and welded them to the inter-dimensional carnage of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. In other words, for those starving to be scared in space, the sci-fi thriller delivered, turning average popcorn fare into an unnerving experience that torched the seat as often as it scorched the mind.
But, the film also did one other thing: It turned Sam Neill into a ghastly, treacherous villain. Now, it’s probably a generational thing, but seeing the New Zealand actor go from a hunky doctor to a fucking cenobite by the film’s end was enough to send this writer to the theater’s lobby. Lest we forget, only four years prior he was running around saving Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards from carnivorous dinosaurs and tree-dwelling Ford Explorers in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. And while, yes, he did play Satan’s son Damien in Graham Baker’s 1981 sequel, Omen III: The Final Conflict, Neill was really only one thing to young teenagers across America: Dr. Alan Grant.
Having everyone’s favorite paleontologist gouge out his eyeballs and slice up his face like a holiday ham was a brilliant move on Anderson’s behalf — and for multiple reasons. At the top of the pile was Neill’s uncanny ability to extrapolate complicated details. As Grant, Neill spends most of his time in Jurassic Park breaking down prehistoric science and making archaeology sound like Disneyland, which is arguably why most kids begged their parents to hit up museums on their way out of theaters during the summer of 1993. Naturally, he brought that same addicting charm to his role as Weir, a character that’s straddled with all kinds of interstellar exposition, all of which he delivers with ease.
Nailing that exposition is a crucial component of Event Horizon, namely because those gluttonous details are paramount to the film’s underlying horror. You need to understand the concepts in order to fully comprehend what’s exactly at stake, especially the sacrifice Miller makes at the very end, when he submits to the inter-dimensional hell in order to save his crew, among them being Nip/Tuck babe Joley Richardson and The Wood hunk Richard T. Jones. True to his soft-spoken cadence, Neill makes that science very easy to chew on, so easy that you start feeling a little too comfortable as the story hits hyperdrive, so when he finally does turn, you feel just as betrayed as Miller and the gang.
How could you do this to us, Dr. Grant?
Of course, it also helps that Anderson enlisted an enviable assembly of character actors to actually give a damn about. As Miller, Fishburne goes H.A.M. in hero mode, radiating with steely confidence as he runs from one Giger-esque corridor to the next. The same goes for Jason Isaacs, whose mild mannered D.J., the crew’s doctor, thrives from the actor’s knack to exude what can best be described as “silent intelligence.” When the two of them slowly unravel the chilling distress call they’ve recovered, their chemistry sells their shared fear like two door-to-door salesmen. Toss in the unlikely inclusion of Kathleen Quinlan and the wry humor of Sean Perwee, and you’ve got a one hell of a winning cast, baby.
Sometimes that’s all you need in a horror film. In the case of Event Horizon, a film that admittedly leans heavily on gore and familiar tropes, despite the fact that most of the blood and guts were left on the cutting room floor (to be lost forever), the characters wind up doing most of the heavy lifting for the film. With the exception of Jon Bon Jovi lookalike Jack Noseworthy, who plays Ensign “Mama Bear!” Justin, the rogues gallery of heroes amplifies the survival narrative as you sit there hoping this person survives or that person gets away. Some of them do very stupid things — why would you chase your kid? — but that stupidity is part of their respective personalities, and those personalities are great.
Again, that’s why it’s so riveting to watch Neill’s villainous turn; he doesn’t start out as a bad guy. Hell, you kind of see him as Grant again: a lovable know-it-all who’s been strung along against his will, only this time he’s suffering from loss (his wife died mysteriously) and his life’s work (designing the Event Horizon) happens to be the cause for the chaos. There’s something eerily magnetic about his fate as the mad creator, and whereas Eisner’s constant juggling affects a number of character arcs throughout the film (even Miller’s), Neill’s downward spiral as Weir goes by unscathed. In a way, it would be like watching Ian Holm’s android Ash lurking around in the Ripley role, only we don’t have his “sympathies.”
Do you see? Do you see?
Twenty years later, Event Horizon looks better than it should, and that’s quite remarkable given the behind-the-scenes nightmares leading up to its August release. With Titanic looming on their schedule, Paramount had been pretty insistent about getting the film out before September, leaving Anderson with very little time in post-production. What’s worse, the film went through a number of cuts, eventually chiseling the runtime down from over two hours to a breathless 95 minutes. However, unlike, say, more recent studio butchery — here’s looking at you Sony — the edits aren’t so obvious, and the final product is still Anderson’s strongest effort, which says more about his filmography than the film itself.
It says, “Liberate te ex inferis, Paul.”