Event Horizon: From Doomed Ship to Cult Gem

Marred by a troubled production, Event Horizon was a box office flop in 1997. But time has been kind to the sci-fi horror movie.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

In the spring of 1997, movie journalism was dominated by discussions of doomed ships. James Cameron’s Titanic, originally scheduled for the lucrative 4th of July slot that summer, had suffered yet another delay. It added fuel to the growing speculation that Cameron was at the helm of a potential disaster akin to Heaven’s Gate. The cost of making the movie had swollen to such huge levels – $200 million according to some accounts, and possibly higher according to others – that the financial burden was shouldered by two of Hollywood’s biggest studios, Fox and Paramount.

Speaking to the LA Times in April that year, Titanic’s first assistant director Sebastian Silva admitted that “The horror stories are true” – referring to the news of an unhappy cast and crew, an aggressively overbearing director and other grim tales that had seeped out of the production over the past few months. “It was just so huge, there was no way to control it,” Silva said. “Sometimes I’d find some of the 1,000 extras sleeping in the weirdest places…”

By pure coincidence, Titanic’s delay had a significant knock-on effect on another Paramount movie about a doomed ship. British director Paul WS Anderson had signed on to make the space horror film Event Horizon after the success of Mortal Kombat, his videogame adaptation released in 1995. Paramount approached Anderson with Event Horizons script, and Anderson, who had designs on making a horror film akin to The Shining or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, liked its haunted-house-in-space concept.

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Anderson was given plenty of creative latitude to forge his own idea of what Event Horizon should look like, and the director quickly jetisoned the alien infestation of Philip Eisner’s original script and began imagining something far more gothic and diabolical. Paramount was willing to foot a generous budget, too – something in the region of $60 million. But the deal came with a catch: with Titanic delayed, Paramount had a gap in its summer schedule. The studio wanted Event Horizon ready for August 1997, giving Anderson just six weeks to edit the movie. Anderson found himself working seven day weeks to get the film in the can and, just to add to the stress, he still had more shooting to complete during the first two weeks of editing. The initial cut of Event Horizon was therefore assembled over the course of four stressful weeks – an absurdly compressed schedule, especially for a film with so many complicated visual effects.

Then came the moment of reckoning: an initial screening where both Paramount executives and test audiences would see the assembly cut of Event Horizon for the first time. That edit ran to around 130 minutes, and it was still rough around the edges – digital wire removal hadn’t yet taken place on some of the zero-gravity sequences, several effects shots were missing, and the sound still had to be mixed.

It wasn’t the lack of polish that left audiences reeling, however, but rather the sheer level of the gore and violence. Cannibalism, evisceration, dismemberment… if Paramount was expecting a spooky, darkly fun rollercoaster ride for the summer multiplex crowd, Event Horizon clearly wasn’t it. The screening was, Anderson admitted, “Disastrous. It didn’t go well at all.” 

read more: The Underrated Movies of 1997

Suddenly anxious about a film they’d previously championed, Paramount demanded that the film be cut down by about half an hour, and Anderson, running out of time and left dazed by the toxic reaction at the screening, acquiesced. Within a week, he and editor Martin Hunter had hacked Event Horizon right down to the bone – the duration of the final cut ran to a lean 95 minutes. Much – though by no means all – of the gore was excised, but gone too were a string of tension- and story-building scenes.

The result is a movie that bears the scars of its hurried making, not least in its final reel, which was re-shot and reworked more than once in Event Horizons chaotic post-production. Yet much of the film’s macabre atmosphere and engagingly spiky imagery still shines through and, even in the face of critical and financial calamity, Event Horizon eventually found a cult following.

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Although financed by an American studio, Event Horizon carries a distinctly gloomy, British sensibility. Its long corridors and space setting hark back to Alien – also shot in the UK – but its story, about a stricken experimental ship rediscovered floating around Neptune, reaches much further back to old stories about deserted ghost ships – the Mary Celeste, perhaps, or Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner

Event Horizons production design, meanwhile, is pure Gothic – built in the mid-21st century, the ship of the film’s title is distinctly medieval revival in style, all flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings and ornate pillars. Pickier viewers might wonder why a space ship would have quite so many spikes, coffin-shaped corridors and other sharp edges that would count as a health and safety hazard, but they’d surely concede that the Event Horizons interior looks quite unlike any other sci-fi film of its era.

The story also carries more than a trace of British horror writer Clive Barker, with its diabolical themes and Hellraiser-esque S&M kinkiness. Possession by the denizens of hell, Event Horizon teaches us, has its victims reciting Latin, snacking on human flesh, and indulging in harsh bouts of scarification.

That’s a heady stew, alright, and we haven’t even got to the numerous movies Event Horizon cheerfully borrows from – Solaris, Disney’s The Black Hole, and The Shining to name but a few. Like one of its demon-possessed villains, Event Horizon chops all of these influences up into chunks and rearranges them in a new and ghastly configuration. In some sequences, this cutting and reordering creates something new and startling. In others, the creative swiping is simply brazen – such as a sequence where a huge glass tube shatters and bathes the screen in blood, recreating almost exactly a scene involving a pair of lift doors and gallons of claret in The Shining.

An international cast, which includes Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, and Sean Pertwee, play the crew of the rescue ship, Lewis and Clark. They’re despatched to explore the Event Horizon, an experimental vessel lost years earlier and previously assumed destroyed. The ship’s designer, Dr Weir (Neill) says that the Event Horizon should have revolutionised faster-than-light travel, but he’s at a loss to explain what went wrong – or why the ship’s reappeared with its crew either vanished or splattered in great streaks across the Event Horizon’s glum interior.

That the ship’s warp drive looks like a desk ornament designed by the devil himself should be a clue to Captain Miller (Fishburne) and the rest of the crew that something dark and unearthly’s happened aboard the Event Horizon, but by the time the hallucinations start occurring and the casualties begin to mount, it’s already too late to escape.

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read more: The Lost Director’s Cut of Event Horizon

Event Horizon’s script is pure pulp, but the cast attack it with enthusiasm. Sam Neill, in particular, seems to thoroughly enjoy the role of Dr. Weir, a scientist who, like Kris Kelvin in Stanislaw Lem’s classic novel Solaris, is haunted by the death of his wife. In fact, Neill effectively gets to play two roles in Event Horizon – first, the Dr. Weir who’s troubled in private yet faintly pompous in company, and later, the mad, bad Dr. Weir who succumbs to the ship’s satanic influence and says such things as, “Where we’re going, we don’t need eyes to see,” like a demented Doc Brown.

Of the rest of the cast, Joely Richardson seems rather less engaged, though it’s notable that she appears to be one of the few crewmembers who isn’t tormented by the ship’s mind games. Could it be that the story of her character, Lieutenant Starck, was one of the threads that went missing in Event Horizons final cut?

Anderson certainly admits that many of his “visions of hell” shots – some of which he filmed at weekends with Richardson – were among the gore-soaked moments that were cut out of the film at the studio’s behest. A sequence in the movie – a video recording of the Event Horizons original crew destroying themselves in an orgy of simultaneous sex and murder – was originally much, much longer. Incredibly, the second unit director on these shocking scenes was Vadim Jean, who at that point was known for such good-natured films as Leon the Pig Farmer and Clockwork Mice.

Regrettably, it’s likely that we’ll never see an extended director’s cut that more accurately reflects Anderson’s original intentions. After Event Horizon was chopped down in the summer of ’97, the trimmed footage was unceremoniously dumped. In a bizarre continuation of the movie’s gothic theme, some of the deleted scenes were discovered in a Transylvanian salt mine years later, by which point they’d degraded beyond the point of return. It’s a sorry reflection of how shunned Event Horizon had become in the run-up to its release.

When Event Horizon emerged in cinemas in August 1997, audiences didn’t exactly flock to see it, either, and the movie wound up making less than half of its budget back in theatres. Like The Thing 15 years before, Event Horizon was a gory, R-rated studio horror that didn’t go down too well with movie-goers or critics – while some reviewers defended the film, many dismissed it as shallow and derivative.

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Rushed through production, treated harshly by its studio and finally upstaged at the box office by the feel-good comedy The Full Monty, which came out just two days earlier, Event Horizon seemed destined for oblivion. Meanwhile, Titanic, the film that had inadvertently led to Event Horizon’s production woes, defied expectations when it finally emerged later in the year; far from a Heaven’s Gate or Waterworld, it cruised into the record books while Event Horizon sank.

Event Horizon is a flawed film, but it also has flashes of brilliance. A sci-fi horror with an unusually large budget, its sets are cavernous and full of detail. There’s a B-picture goofiness to some aspects in its dialogue and plot, but there are also scenes of Boschian hellishness that really still the blood. That imagery has proved quite inspiring to other filmmakers and videogame designers, with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine bearing a passing resemblance to Event Horizon in its latter stages, while Visceral’s game Dead Space unabashedly pilfers from the movie’s visuals as well as its story.

read more: Event Horizon TV Series in the Works

Event Horizon has managed to endure as a cult item, too, which may be due to the primal sensations it can still evoke. Although set in the future, Event Horizon manages to tap into the same fear of the unknown sailors must have felt when they travelled off into uncharted waters – the sensation that, if you went too far in a certain direction, you may wind up sailing into a terrifying abyss.

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