If there’s one thing that can be said about squillion-dollar blockbusters these days, it’s that they’re by-and-large unwilling to really put themselves out there and do something really cool fucked up, lest they alienate general audiences and scare bums out of seats. The soulless calculus of Hollywood accounting means that the rougher edges of moviemaking – both in craft and content – become less and less common the more the budget goes up.
And that’s why I often find myself revisiting 1997’s Event Horizon, the resolutely bizarre Gothic sci-fi gorefest which somehow scored a $60 million budget – an insane amount for a horror movie, even now – to unleash something absolutely guaranteed to disgust general audiences and piss off critics. It’s on Australian Netflix at the moment and, like basically every other time I’ve encountered it, I’ve been compelled to watch it again.
A quick synopsis for the uninitiated: a crew of astronauts, including Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne and Jason Isaacs, are sent to find the Event Horizon, a starship which disappeared on its maiden voyage seven years before and seemingly reappeared in orbit around Neptune. Sam Neill plays the scientist who invented the ‘gravity drive’ that powered the ship’s travel, and he and the team are there to work out what happened.
Long story short, it turns out that the gravity dive – which Neill’s character explains, in an extremely awkward exposition scene, works by folding space-time – actually sent the Event Horizon and its original crew through the depths of Hell itself. While there, they did what one expects you would do in Hell: participate in some manner of blood-soaked sex and murder orgy. Oh, the ship becomes sentient and evil too. Can’t imagine a worse maiden voyage for your spaceship, if I’m being totally honest.
It’s a certifiably weird high concept for what Paramount assumed was going to be a sci-fi rollercoaster ride. And director Paul W.S. Anderson, who was riding high off the financially successful (and insanely stupid) Mortal Kombat adaptation, more or less spat in their face. The original screening of the uncut 121-minute movie, as Anderson tells it, was “disastrous,” with test audiences being somewhat confronted by the extended, explicit depictions of cannibalism, dismemberment and gore.
The final, much leaner 96-minute cut feels way too short (and much less bloody) and certain narrative arcs aren’t explored or tied up as they should be. The extended cut will never be released, either – Anderson has confirmed the chopped footage has been lost forever. In what feels like a fitting continuation of the film’s general vibe, some of the cut film was actually discovered years later in a Transylvanian salt mine. Old salt mines are often used to store celluloid and paper because of ideal humidity conditions, but I prefer to think Dracula put it there for inscrutable and evil reasons.
But what we did get is still a bizarrely compelling movie, despite obvious faults. It’s a hodgepodge of elements much more critically-acclaimed movies like Alien, the original Solaris and The Shining, but still manages to find its own weird mode. It’s very much a Gothic horror despite its sci-fi trappings, and the design of the spaceship basically answers the age-old question of what a crumbling old European castle would look like if it were hurled into space by Satan. It’s all vaunted hallways and old-school columns and crucifix-shaped windows
It’s even got the foreboding cracks of lightning, folks!
And this makes absolutely no sense in the context of how an actual spacecraft might function, but it looks cool as hell:
Again, no idea why Sam Neill thought his spaceship gravity drive design required so many monstrous and clearly evil spikes – but it is we, the viewer, who truly benefit:
Of course, what people really remember about Event Horizon – especially those who accidentally watched it as kids – is the last third or so of the film, when all semblance of plot dissipates and we’re treated to Anderson’s Hieronymus Bosch-style understanding of what hell might look like. Bodies speared on spikes, maggot-infested corpses, Sam Neill ripping his eyes out and inexplicably putting them back in… the works, baby!
It’s all suitably nightmarish, doubly so when you remember this is the stuff Paramount let them keep in there after that disastrous screening.
And, as many Australian viewers like to point out, yes: Sam Neill has a cool spacesuit patch of the futuristic Australian flag which features the Aboriginal flag in place of the Union Jack. A nice little nod, at least before he starts eating people.
It also features the greatest line in any movie about a haunted spaceship. It is when Laurence Fishburne, obviously fed up with having to deal with a haunted spaceship, yells “FUCK THIS SHIP!” Masterful. Brought a tear to my eye in every single one of my over twenty viewings of this movie since 1997.
Never seen it? Crack open Netflix and watch it this weekend. Bring beer.