Event Horizon (1997)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 23rd, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When Phillip Eisner first pitched Event Horizon to Hollywood executives, he recycled the familiar Alien refrain, calling it a ďhaunted house story in space,Ē which always sounds nice but was already old hat by the late-90s. So itís no wonder that director Paul W.S. Anderson had much more grandiose vision since this era called for something more extreme to match the sensibilities of a generation raised on Surge, 3D Doritos, and grunge. No, this era demanded a full-on Lucio Fulci Gates of Hell movie transported to space, where everyone could hear the screeching, grating wails of the infernal abyss howling through the distant cosmos. Few filmmakers were better poised to deliver it than Anderson, fresh off of establishing his sleek, blockbuster style in Mortal Kombat, a genre fantasia of martial arts and sorcery that was unafraid to embrace its source material.
Doing so qualified as a bold move in the mid-90s, when other video game adaptations shied away from their roots, often to disastrous effect. But Anderson just did the damn thing and scored a runaway hit that gave him carte blanche to choose his next project. Looking to pivot away from PG-13 fare, he turned to Eisnerís Event Horizon script and immediately set out to punch up what he considered to be a standard Alien riff. His solution was to toss more influences into the blender, including The Haunting, The Shining, Solaris, and Hellraiser, yielding a paradoxical crazy quilt: Andersonís original vision of Event Horizon was undoubtedly a patchwork of influences, and yet it sounded like something wholly singular.
We can only speculate, of course, because Paramount infamously forced a rushed production schedule on Anderson, then asked him to cut the film down following allegedly disastrous test screenings, where an aghast audience (and Paramount execs) was shocked by the graphic sex and violence. What was released into studios was a compromised vision, a husk of what could have been had the studio been more flexible with its director or at least had the foresight to preserve the original cut. Unfortunately, the theatrical edit is all that has endured, and it continues to offer a fascinating glimpse into a thwarted vision. Even if what remains is a fairly audacious horror picture, you canít help but wonder about its phantom limbs still floating in the ether.
In many ways thatís fitting since Event Horizon is haunted by disappointment and despair. It opens with the optimistic assertion that mankind will establish a moon base in 2015 on its way to exploring the edges of the known solar system. Only disaster follows: in 2040, the ]Event Horizon disappears on a voyage to Proxima Centauri, only to reemerge seven years later with a cryptic distress signal. The shipís designer, William Weir (Sam Neill), joins the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a rescue vessel dispatched to investigate the wreckage. Almost nothing remains of it, save for the derelict craft itself: inside the colossal wreck, scattered limbs and splashed blood hint that some horrific disaster fell upon the crew, heightening an already inscrutable tragedy. Determined to find some answersóand to perhaps relieve himself of any guiltóWeir investigates the shipís gravity drive. Its activation unwittingly unleashes another disaster: not only is the Lewis and Clark damaged, but one of its crew is sucked into the artificial black hole and remerges in a traumatized, catatonic state. Something may have come back with him, too, as the rest of the crew starts to hallucinate visions from their own tortured pasts.
Despite Andersonís best efforts, itís still fair to say that Event Horizon owes its skeletal structure to Alien. Itís got the tight-knit, blue collar crew investigating a mystery thatís largely kept off-screen, resulting in that oppressive sense of dread that pays off when the horror is properly unleashed. One of them may know more than their letting on, driven by ulterior motives to understand what happened to the Event Horizon. The gritty texture of the sets probably owes more to Aliens, but you get the picture: this is a familiar framework, sturdily and studiously repurposed. And that last bit is especially important: brazen cash-ins and rip-offs are woven into the fabric of exploitation filmmaking, but the ones that endure were put together thoughtfully or at least exhibit some idiosyncratic quality that allow them to get out of the shadow of their more famous predecessors.
Event Horizon does a little bit of both. Obviously, Paramount didnít see things through with its eventual treatment of Anderson, but the studio put its weight behind the production, investing $60 million to secure an outstanding cast and top-of-the-line effects work that still holds up. Such a production was also an outlier among Hollywoodís horror output at this point since studios were about to hitch a ride on the Kevin Williamson gravy train and crank out modestly-budgeted slashers with rising television and film stars. (Appropriately enough, Alien: Resurrection was another exception that would be released two months later.) However, it wasnít exactly a wild gamble, either, because this feels like a natural extension of Hollywoodís renewed preoccupation with disaster movies during this decade. For all its obvious, iconic genre influences, Event Horizon probably owes its existence to the spectacle-laden hits with impressive casts that had become the cornerstone of studio filmmaking. It was both like and unlike its contemporaries all at once. Hell, itís hard to imagine something like this being released now. Of course, maybe thatís also thanks in part to Event Horizon, which carried more risk thanks to an R-rating that kept a large segment of its target audience at bay, resulting in a lukewarm box office performance.
For his part, though, Anderson took Paramountís ball and sprinted with it. Event Horizon bursts with the exuberance of a filmmaker being unleashed to indulge his wildest dreams. If Mortal Kombat was Anderson scratching an itch for violent filmmaking, then this was him furiously peeling away at a scab. Put it this way: Anderson may have name-dropped restrained fare like The Haunting, but Event Horizon is probably the only movie that coaxes a jump scare from a severed arm floating through the hull of a spacecraft. Itís one of the early flourishes of the unhinged imagination guiding the film. Call it derivative all you want (it is), but Anderson imprints it with a vivid style, flashing wild camera work and unhinged editing tics to capture the crewís growing madness. Itís a stark vision of people losing their minds to their own ghosts, conjured here by the vague, unseen force thatís gripped a decaying vessel where gallons of blood inexplicably barrel through the hull as the lights strobe with a hallucinatory, crimson menace.
Even though characterization is thin, the impressive cast bolsters the proceedings; anchored by Neill and Lawrence Fishburne (starring as the no-nonsense captain), each crew member has a distinct personality, and they all share a natural camaraderie thatís necessary for a disaster movie to really work. Itís also fair to wonder if it really is working, all the way up until a crew member tries to commit suicide by blowing himself out of an airlock and you realize how genuinely harrowing it is. And because itís a Paul W.S. Anderson movie, you feel like it could go either way: heís one of those filmmakers that invests in characters but also has no qualms about knocking them off. So you get the best of both worlds with Event Horizon as Anderson orchestrates splatter movie theatrics woven with great character moments. When Fisbhurne bellows ďfuck this shipĒ during the climax, itís one of those great moments of bravado, one thatís matched only by Neillís increasingly unhinged turn as the cagey Weir. I donít know if thereís anyone else whoís more delightful when losing their mind on-screen, and this is likely the closest weíll ever come to seeing Neill go full Pinhead. Of all the people lost in Andersonís demented funhouse here, he relishes it the most.
As slick as Andersonís style is, thereís also something jagged and disorienting about it, and it was arguably never better deployed than it was here. His work would eventually succumb completely to hyperkinetics, completely eschewing whatever restraint he may have shown (or relented to) here, where he threads a delicate needle through meticulous suspense and unhinged schlock. Event Horizon is oppressive and deranged in equal measure, a total horror show that pushes to the edge of cinematic lunacy, especially when it introduces its most intriguing bit of mythos by prying open the gates of hell itself. The metaphysical freak-out is what ultimately propels this one to that lunatic plane, where coherence submits to nightmares and phantasms. Whether itís by design or the inevitable result of Paramountís meddling, Event Horizon comes close to recapturing those Italian schlock glory days and its impressionist horror shows painted in garish gore.
Still, I canít help but wonder if something is lurking in Andersonís preferred cut that would catapult it there completely. Ultimately, Event Horizon is a film haunted by itself, and the ghost that lingers most oppressively is that original vision, now seemingly as lost and adrift as the filmís titular vessel. Call it a cruel case of life imitating art, a movie about thwarted ambition that flew a little too close to the sun itself before a studio clipped its wings.
In the years since its release, Event Horizon has developed a cult following, whose pleas to restore Andersonís original cut havenít gone unheard. Unfortunately, itís been all for naught, though, and even Scream Factory wasnít able to locate the film elements after an extensive search. It wasnít for lack of trying, to be sure: the collectorís edition was originally set to be released last September but was pushed back in an effort to find the necessary footage to restore it. But as Anderson himself reveals in a newly-shot interview, the footage is likely long gone, and what does exist only does so on VHS. He suggests the only way to create a directorís cut at this point would involve reshooting the footage altogether, an obviously impractical solution. And while thatís disappointing, Scream Factory has done the next best thing by giving the theatrical cut a 4K restoration that fixes some of the issues with the previous masterís colors and noise artifacts. Event Horizon has never looked better, and the new transfer especially captures the wonderful, celluloid texture of the production, whereas the old one tended to look too much like video. The accompanying DTS-MA track is also solid: the channel separation creates an impressive, immersive soundscape that does justice to the dynamic (and loud) sound design.
For supplemental material, Scream commissioned 11 new interviews with the cast and crew. Because of the pandemic, most of them were obviously conducted remotely, with participants speaking into webcams or phones. Itís lo-fi, but it gets the job done, and everyone fondly remembers their time on-set. Anderson is the headliner, as he briefly shares the story of how he came aboard the project. Following Mortal Kombat, he initially had to choose between Event Horizon and Soldier; he actually chose the latter, but Kurt Russell insisted he needed a year to get into shape, giving Anderson ample time to do both projects. Anderson also addresses the post-production elephant in the room but concedes thatís just the way things go when youíre working on a studio project. Thereís not a hint of animosity towards Paramount, and he remains proud of the film he made, warts and all. Even now, over 20 years later, he still exudes an infectious energyóthis is a guy who loves movies, and, more importantly, is a selfless collaborator that everyone loves to work with.
Thatís the familiar refrain of most of the rest of the interviews, starting with Eisner, who admits his original screenplay was a general premise in search of a story. He credits Anderson with helping to bring his vision to life, and he has a nice anecdote about walking onto the set for the first time and being in awe of the crewís work. Kathleen Quinlan, Jack Noseworthy, and Peter Marinker represent the cast, and each of them recounts their decision to come aboard the project before offering some anecdotes about various scenes.
The rest of the interviews are with below-the-line crew members: production designer Joseph Bennett, set decorator Crispian Sallis, production manager Dusty Symonds, second unit director Robin Vidgeon, location manager Derek Harrington, and sound designer Campbell Askew all offer some insight into their corner of the production. Almost all of them share an awe and adoration for the set itself, which is often glimpsed via vintage behind-the-scenes footage. They all reiterate their admiration of Anderson, too; in fact, if youíre looking for dirt or drama, youíll only hear a brief story about the chaotic second unit, which was in disarray until Vidgeon came aboard and instituted a production office. For the most part, these interviews are informative and interesting enoughóin total, they run for about 70 minutes, with the longest clocking in at just over ten minutes and the shortest at under three minutes. Admittedly, itís not as satisfying as a full-on retrospective documentary would have been, but it is better than some of the more recent Scream releases that feature participants responding to the same prompt, so they donít succumb to too much repetition.
Of course, a new retrospective documentary may have been superfluous since Scream imported ďThe Making of Event Horizon,Ē the 107-minute documentary Paramount produced for its original Blu-ray release. You canít help but note the irony of a studio insisting on cutting down a movie to 90 minutes but then later producing a longer documentary about that movie. At any rate, itís split up into five featurettes, or you can watch the entire thing at once--unfortunately, itís still in standard def, though Iím not sure if a high-def master would even exist for it. Another import from the old disc, ďPoint of No ReturnĒ offers a glimpse into the shooting of four scenes, with commentary from the crew narrating the vintage footage. Both the deleted and extended scenes from the old release are back, too, alongside the conceptual art for the original opening scene, which was never shot due to budget constraints. A theatrical and home video trailer round out the disc, which is housed in Scream Factoryís customary Collectorís Edition packaging boasting newly-commissioned artwork along with the original art on the reverse side. Short of the footage of the original cut miraculously resurfacing (and weíll never say never around these parts, where we never thought weíd see that missing gore footage from Friday the 13th Part II that Scream unearthed), this is likely the best release weíll ever see for Event Horizon on Blu-ray.
As is the case with so many films in Screamís catalog, itís remarkable that Event Horizon has received such a treatment at all considering the lukewarm reception upon its theatrical release. Indeed, it seemed destined to be the answer to a trivia question since itís the film that replaced the more successful Titanic on Paramountís slate after the latter was delayed. Had Cameron had been able to deliver his blockbuster hit on time, itís possible that Event Horizon may have reached its full potential. Instead, we also just have to appreciate the irony of one film about an infamous shipwreck derailing another: Titanic and Event Horizon were like two ships passing in the night in 1997, one of them destined for immediate cinematic immortality, the other for the choppier, rougher waters of the cult canon. But only one of them features an infamous blood orgy, so you tell me which one should have actually won an Academy Award.
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