Event Horizon and the Trouble with Paul WS Anderson

Some people would argue that if you can make just one film that leaves a lasting impression, your career in the industry was a success. If this is true then Paul WS Anderson has done an impressive job of trying to undo that success. The man with the seemingly strategically-designed-to-momentarily-confuse-you name – oh for the day when a headline would announce Paul Thomas or Wes Anderson’s Resident Evil – is certainly prolific within the more genre savvy corners of the film geekosphere. Involved with the production of numerous video-game adaptations – not to mention shlock like Alien v Predator – his is a name that doesn’t inspire confidence despite helming the single most successful series of videogame films in the history of the industry. For of course, as anyone who has seen those glorious garbage fires knows, successful does not equal good. This wasn’t always the case however. Before he won the lottery of life by meeting and marrying Milla Jovovich while creating amongst the most disproportionately financially prosperous critic-proof films ever, he made a little sci-fi horror by the name of Event Horizon that would go on to garner that most elusive of titles; the cult success.

Event Horizon was released on this date 20 years ago. - HeadStuff.org
Event Horizon was released on this date 20 years ago. Source

I first stumbled across this film as a wee lad when my parents rented it out on VHS – a sentence with simply too many relics of the old world that I shan’t even dare begin to explain them all to any of you children reading – and I misheard them, thinking they’d said they rented something called ‘Adventure Island’. Expecting some kind of dull pirate adventure, I watched it the next morning while they were still in bed and was sufficiently (but pleasantly) freaked the fuck out. What makes it stand out, and more importantly, continued to stick around is that while it is a sci-fi pseudo-Alien copycat, it also veers quite heavily into the realm of supernatural and even religious horror. Add in the oft discussed levels of gore and you’ve got yourself a nice little cult film that people still vaguely recall when its name gets mentioned.

I think it is this blending of various types of horrors that has allowed it to endure, or at least it is for me. You can read about how the film was supposed to be far longer but the studio demanded cuts and the extra footage is lost forever but in fact, those cuts are its saving grace. Watching it again, it’s hard not to argue that Sam Neill’s arc suffered heavily thanks to the cutting room floor. He takes a sudden and drastic turn in the final third with little in the way of satisfying explanation. This goes for the actual gateway itself too. We’re given some science mumbo-jumbo and the implication that they accidentally portalled into hell itself but little by way of anything concrete. You could argue this is an inadvertent strength of the film; with the explanation’s vagueness and truth of what’s actually happening ultimately unclear, it’s makes the scenario that much more unsettling as the minor supernatural elements remain present without being buoyed to any sort of explanation in the science of the film.

Given that Anderson is a name more infamous in the videogame industry than the film one – usually followed by a shaking of fists – it’s interesting that this film’s legacy is more notable in games than anywhere else. Aside from the likes of Dead Space which is just a straight rip-off of the film  – except with an even more pornographic attitude toward dismemberment if you can believe that – the film’s tone and uncertain combination of sci-fi and supernatural clearly captured the imagination of developers that would likely have been the film’s target audience, and is quite visible in the slew of slow-burn sci-fi horrors with vague and frequently religious overtones, that followed. Which is to say nothing of this film’s resemblance to DOOM, in fact this film actually adheres far more closely to that game’s plot than it’s own film adaptation did and likely fed into Doom 3’s production in a strange ouroboros of cultural influence.

Despite its brevity the film manages to show impressive restraint and a genuine sense of  building dread that’s not only lacking in modern shlock horror but was rare even then. This is no doubt partially because there is no monster that its teasing you with, just the divine retribution on man’s hubris, ergo, it has no choice but to focus on the characters and their ever-slipping grasp on sanity. Yet it remains engaging throughout; the central mystery is interesting, there’s plenty of practical gore effects and a surprisingly good cast. Aside from Sam Neill – in all his dad-bod glory – you have Laurence Fishburne, Sean Pertwee and (hello to) Jason Isaacs; a veritable who’s-who of beloved character actors all acting like they’re in a self-aware parody of the film they’re actually in.

Still, on the whole it’s a film that’s probably better in your memory. The big centrepiece orgy of chaos is actually shockingly brief and despite all the talk of them using real porn stars and actual amputees to add to the extremity, you’d never get a sense of any of that. The CGI is also quite spotty, which makes their heavy use of practical effects both a saving grace and unusual in that era of filmmaking. And of course there’s that particular 90’s quirk of insufferable and mood-killing comic relief characters. Visually, the film is hardly ground-breaking but with some flourishes, many of which you’ll be quite used to if you know Anderson’s style – as yours truly does to an embarrassingly in-depth degree. If you fancy playing some Paul-WS-bingo then you’ll not be long filling the card; crawlspaces, symmetrical set design, shots of things in eyes and slow-motion water gushing. Alas, no supermodels slo-mo kicking zombie dogs in mid-air.

Sam Neill in Event Horizon. - HeadStuff.org
Sam Neill in Event Horizon. Source

In the end what we have is a surprisingly memorable slice of sci-fi horror which is hardly a ground-breaking piece of cinema but still a solidly diverting genre piece. With Anderson now free of the undead, it’s a reminder that he’s not a complete no talent hack and could well have a decent film in him yet… Or he could end up making more dreck like Pompeii

 

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