Paul W. S. Anderson’s (Mortal Kombat (1995) and Resident Evil (2002)) Event Horizon (1997) scared the piss out of me as a thirteen year old. Before re-watching the film, I could remember bloodcurdling scenes in which people spoke in tongues and gouged out their own eyeballs.
Oh, how age changes our perspective on such matters! Fifteen years have passed since I last watched Event Horizon, and what I found wasn’t filmmaking capable of producing horror, but horrifying filmmaking. Event Horizon is not an effective horror film for a range of reasons (i.e. hamfisted characterization and bad dialogue) but mainly for its chief offense: Anderson’s inability to calculate the film’s tone.
At the start of the film, a scientist (Sam Neill) and a bunch of space marines (who include Laurence Fishburne and Kathleen Quinlan) embark upon a search-and-rescue mission at the recovery site of the space cruiser, Event Horizon. When the scientist and the marines arrive, they discover no survivors – and only a frozen corpse – on the ship. That’s when the visions begin.
Event Horizon owes less to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and more to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) because the horror (visions and madness) is not produced by some foreign, grotesquely embodied source but by the “haunted house” of the ship.
I admire Anderson and screenwriter Philip Eisner’s goal to move beyond cinematic plagiarism, and the film certainly has a great atmosphere going for it (the film owes a lot to cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who shot James Cameron’s Aliens (1986)). However, the thin characterization and the dialogue it inspires rob the film of depth. For instance, we discover that Sam Neill’s scientist has lost his wife in the first scene. Anderson relays this information to us like someone trying to tell a secret with a bullhorn. Neill has a dream about his dead wife, wakes up to take her picture off the wall (which he then kisses and tells he misses her), and places the picture within a shrine devoted to her. I guess this guy misses his dead wife.
Moreover, the film is a tonal train wreck, a shortcoming illustrated by a particularly egregious sequence. One of the crew, driven insane by the haunted space ship, plants a bomb that kills some of the principal characters. This is a horrifying and potentially dramatic (if the characters had been more fleshed out) moment, which Anderson undercuts by cutting to another character propelling himself to freedom while shouting “Here I come, motherfucker!” The film attempts to shift from melancholy to laughter in the short duration of a straight cut.
In short, if you’re looking for a creepy haunted house picture, don’t settle for The Shining in Space. Just watch The Shining instead.