Watch enough of these films and you begin to see man-shapes moving behind their curtains. After ninety minutes of alright-if-exceedingly-cheap Horror Movie you begin to notice odd things…besides the walking corpses. Characters appearing and disappearing with no real logic or explanation; the consistent jump-cutting away from gorier shots which, up until this point, the film’s been not-at-all-coy about; a half-assed, utterly pointless non-ending, because no one had the balls to do like The Blob did back in the day, and have their “The End” title card morph into a giant question mark. These are the signs of a film that’s Missing Something. About thirty minutes worth, as it turned out.
These are the scars of a bad test screening and mandated-from-above reedits, the kind honest directors live to regret in their old age. Paul Anderson is something else, and what else should we expect from the man who gave us Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil: They Picked Me After George Quit?
Anderson’s preference for cheap scares hits you three and a half minutes in, after a floating corpse literally screams in your face. This turns out to be the dream of Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil) whom we eventually learn is a U.S. Aerospace Command scientist in the year 2047. More importantly, Weir has the disturbing habit of dreaming about his dead wife, Clare (Holley Chant), and an immanent Mission aboard the U.S.A.C. rescue ship Lewis and Clark. Some high mucky-mucks on Earth just received a radio signal from the legendary lost starship Event Horizon, which disappeared seven years prior.
Dr. Weir informs us that, “What was made public about the Event Horizon…none of that is true. The Event Horizon was the culmination of a secret government project to create a spacecraft capable of faster than light flight.” Weir’s helpfully demonstration of the concept of a gravity drive, with the aid of Miss 2047 (Teresa May)’s centerfold, must be seen to be believed. In short, the Event Horizon was supposed to bend time and space through the strategic use of an artificial black hole. Instead, it went bye-bye. The shore leave-starved crew of the Lewis and Clark is charged with finding out the relevant whetherfors and whytos.
As they will be our Cannon Fodder, I’m going to do them a service this flick avoids and try to get to know them…such as they are. Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) gives the orders. Lt. Starck (Joely Richardson) carries them out, seemingly catching more shit than anyone else aboard by virtue of her being the XO. And blond. The very brunette Peters (Kathleen Quinlan, a long way from American Graffiti), who introduces herself as “Med Tech,” presumably keeps everyone alive. D.J. (Jason Isaacs) the “controlman” will spend most of the time doing Peters’ job. Smith (Sean Pertwee) drives the boat, while Justin (Jack Noseworthy) floats through half the film with nothing more to do than look young. He comes across as some engineer whiz-kid, the Clark‘s own Wesley Crusher, and suffers through everyone else calling him “Baby Bear” with the calm demeanor of a man waiting until just the right time to Go Postal. Last but not least, there’s Cooper (Richard T. Jones), over whom I must wearily sigh. If Laurence Fishburne weren’t already so obviously here, Cooper would be our Token Black Dude. Yet he still fulfills all of the standard TBD requirements – coming off as the ship’s resident boastful, sexist dick…but I suppose it could’ve been worse: he could’ve been played by Will Smith.
After docking with the Event Horizon on the high fringe of Neptune’s atmosphere, we discover Dr. Weir built his ship in collaboration with H.R. Giger, Dark City‘s Strangers, and Clive Barkers Cenobites. Justin even remarks on this as he journeys toward Death. Since we’re In Space, rather than take the form of a hockey-mask-wearing pseudo-zombie with a penchant for murdering teenagers because he misses Mummy Dearest, Death takes the form of that great honking black hole generator in the Event Horizon‘s Core. This sucks Justin in and sends an energy wave out, crippling the Lewis and Clark. Our Crew masses on the Event Horizon, rallying in the face of their One (broken) Radio, their dwindling supply of air…and the Horizon‘s terminal case of the hauntings.
If it’s too easy to play Who’ll Die Next with this film, try figuring out how big a role carbon dioxide poisoning plays in Our Hero’s (sarcastic air-quotes) “startling” visitations. DJ comments on this, but only so the other characters can dismiss his knee-jerk rationalism. There’s a enough distrust of Scientific Endeavor in particular, and Messing With Gods Domain in general, to make any 50s sci-fi picture proud. Yes, it seems much more reasonable for these stalwart Space Rescuers to assume that the ship might be alive, reacting to them the way a biological something reacts to any old type of infection. Because mindfucking invaders with visions of their dead wives is the first trick my immune system learned.
Given that this is a horror movie in science fiction’s clothing made in the 1990s and directed by Paul “check out my hot wife” Anderson, originality cannot be expected. Mainstream critics dismissed Event Horizon as a pale Solaris remake with space truckers, but the film occasionally attempts to reach further back than Mother Russia’s answer to 2001, to the paranoid side of mid-twentieth century SF. Philip K. Dick, for one, spent the 1960s assaulting future civilizations with all manner of Space God-Monsters. This, though, is a haunted house story. And if you’re looking for their modern urtext you’ll have to reach back to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. But I suppose that might’ve taken time.
Better to just rip off Alien, because Haunting was a densely-packed, psychological drama, where you weren’t sure whether the characters had more to fear from the house or themselves. Event Horizon tosses such metaphysical cookies all over our no-longer-white-because-it’s-after-Labor-Day shoes by having characters declare in no uncertain terms and on at least three separate occasions that the ship has been “to Hell”…and with a new crew lured aboard (it’s previous one having murdered itself after the effects of “Hell” drove everyone into a homicidal blood orgy) the ship’ll skiddo right back there as soon as Dr. Weird presses the Go button. After seven years In Hell, perhaps the ship’s more than just a mid-60s Klingon battlecruiser with some extra crap glued to the sides. Perhaps it’s alive…
So why does it need anyone to press the “Go” button at all? Why not just warp itself back to “Hell” as soon as the Clark‘s crippled, its crew secured in the Beast’s Belly? Why seduce Sam Neil? Sentimentality? (It is “his” ship, after all.) And if you’re so hot for a crew, you sentient starship, why do you waste half an hour luring most of them into cliched death traps? Say it with me: “Because then the movie’d be over.”
Yes, it seems this culture’s managed to make even “Hell” banal, along with the starships that go there. “Hell,” in what little we see of it, amounts to a few quick flashes of the same hooked chains holding the same twitching, fake body parts Clive Barker’s dreamed about for neigh on thirty years (twenty years at the time of filming). All wrapped together in a bright-light-and-jump-cut sandwich, as if the movie were trying to subliminally plant things in our subconscious. Legend says over thirty minutes wound up splattered all over the floor at the studio’s behest, some of it probably gore-related. Thus having already denied us a compelling story, original characters, innovative set designs, or a comprehensible antagonist, the film denies us its last worthwhile reason to exist: horror movie money shots.
Still…the seeds of a good idea are here. I mean…it’s a Haunted House…In SPACE! Ah…but wait…Blue Collar Space Jockeys? Check. Heroic Commander? Laurence Fishburne, reporting as ordered. Token Black Dude? Yep. Simpering Female? Oh yeah. (Kathleen Quinlan’s Peters, a negative Ripley who spends the entire film pining for her Earth-bound son…a fact the ship exploits with Freddy Krueger-ish relish). Untrustworthy Scientist? (Sam Neil, playing a character named after an alchemist…and you know how those people are.) Event Horizon’s pitch seems to be: rip off Alien, and film half of it from Ash’s perspective. That’ll get the marks in.
At least Fishburne’s here to keep us awake. Like the rest of the cast he’s got fuck all to do save fall down the Alien rip-off Singularity, sliding through levels of “I don’t believe this is happening,” as his crew falls dead around him. At least Fishburne’s ability to project “calm and cool” stands out. There’s an undercurrent of exasperation to his “Skipper” persona that fits with the situation…but I suspect it’s really the exasperation of an actor who knows he’s slumming in some rushed, late-summer, sci-fi/horror film, grateful the check’s cleared…now if only he could get offset and spend it on something.
Instead, he has to perform a monologue about the old friend he “let die” during some space accident years ago so that the cheap scare scene he just lived through will make a lick of sense to the audience. Moments like this litter Event Horizon. Like shards of glass on a bike trail, they pierce the plot’s ties, letting all the tension escape. This is How Not To Tell A Story 101. You’re supposed to weave exposition into the plot, not leave the plot stranded by the side of the road while two characters have a nice little chat inside a haunted fucking starship, the last place you’d expect to be conducive to nice chats. Half the film revolves around figures from the crew’s pasts haunting them and Event Horizon could’ve left it at that and preserved a little something I like to call “momentum.” But no. Why show when you can tell?
One or two of these tellings (like “Baby Bear’s” line about “the Dark Inside”) work, but in the end the film wastes its opportunities on elaborate set pieces that either kill time (like the “surprise” emergence of the Event Horizon from Neptune’s upper atmosphere) or not-so-coincidentally separate one character from the others. Sure, they could all stay in a group in a well-lit place far, far away from the black hole generator…but someone’s just got to crawl down this dimly lit Jeffery’s tube in order to change a spark plug somewhere, and it might as well be Sam Neil. Unless his dead wife’s riding his ass about something…
The film’s at its best when the crew’s all on the bridge arguing over the veracity of their visions. There’s a bit where suddenly DJ puts a scalpel to Smith’s throat and insists, “There’s nothing odd going on.” I’d have enjoyed ninety minutes things like that. Wouldn’t have made a grand film, mind…but it might’ve made something decent, and it would’ve tacked more toward the Kubrick school of haunted house movie…as opposed to the Ridley Scott.
On the other hand, Event Horizon is no more or less frustrating than any other paint-by-numbers horror movie. It just happens to be set in space. Really, how hard is it to survive a haunted house film? Can’t leave? Go to where people are and hope they aren’t already dead. If they are, congratulations: you’re officially the Final Girl.
Laurence Fishburne makes an alright Final Girl, but Sam Neil is horrible monster. His transition from Scientist to Cenobite is rough and poorly handled. He fucked up the Math somewhere and now “his” ship’s a highway to Hell, that I get. But from the moment he starts getting all cagey about the hauntings not being hauntings, we know he’s doomed to be our Designated Villain. As if you don’t already have one the size of a fucking starship.
Still, if you last all the way to the end there are few limp surprises and some nifty visuals. Not one for the ages, it’s a film to laugh at with a few drunken friends. So congratulations, Event Horizon, you’ve managed to kill time. Good on you. Maybe the studio ordered all the film’s ambitions cut along with all the gore, but you’ve gotta review the film you saw, and somehow I doubt Event Horizon was all that ambitious at the outset.