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“Hell Is Only a Word”: The Enduring Terror of ‘Event Horizon’

Paul W.S. Anderson’s space-horror film was maligned during its 1997 release, but has since gained a cult following and will be adapted into a TV series for Amazon. But the biggest question surrounding ‘Event Horizon’ still persists: Will we ever get a diabolical director’s cut?

Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

For films that feature a character descending into madness, it’s all about the look. Jack Torrance, staring out into the endless blizzard outside the Overlook Hotel; Travis Bickle, shaving his head into a Mohawk; Colonel Kurtz, moving out of the shadows of his decaying temple. Sometimes, a striking image tells you everything you need to know. For Sam Neill’s character in a criminally overlooked horror film from 1997, it’s the sight of him sitting in the captain’s chair of a doomed spaceship, having torn out his own eyes.

“Where we’re going,” he says, “we won’t need eyes to see.”

Welcome to Event Horizon, the batshit masterpiece from filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson—and a more literal interpretation of what it means to go to hell and back. The year is 2047, and Earth has received a distress signal near Neptune from the Event Horizon, a scientific research vessel that mysteriously vanished without a trace seven years prior. The movie centers on a rescue team—led by Laurence Fishburne’s Captain Miller—that is tasked with traveling to the far reaches of our solar system to find out what happened to the ship, and with any luck, rescue some survivors. Joining Miller’s crew is Dr. Weir, played by Neill, the architect of the Event Horizon, who reveals the true nature of the ship: It was designed so that mankind could travel faster than the speed of light by opening a rift in the space-time continuum.

But it turns out the setup had some, uh, drawbacks—namely, that the Event Horizon inadvertently opened a portal to what’s essentially a hell dimension. (It should come as no surprise that the members of the original crew are in no condition to be rescued.) And by returning to the ship and restoring its power, Dr. Weir, Captain Miller, and his crew are subjecting themselves to the same horrors: a malignant presence that preys on the characters’ worst fears and traumas. Think The Shining, but in outer space, with a little Hellraiser thrown in for good measure.

Any movie centered on a crew being terrorized in space will inevitably draw comparisons to Alien, but as Anderson tells me in a phone interview, he was committed to executing his own vision with Event Horizon. “I wanted to do something different that hadn’t been done in spaceships before, and because we were telling a gothic horror story, I reached back in time,” he says. What particularly inspired the director, after a trip to Paris, was the Gothic architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral. “Using an architectural cam program, we basically built Notre Dame Cathedral in the computer, and then we pulled it apart and we used different elements of it to build the Event Horizon,” Anderson explains. “So, the towers from Notre Dame became the engine thruster pods.”

While Ridley Scott was able to lean on H.R. Giger’s memorable creature designs to make the Alien universe and its deadly xenomorphs so iconic, Anderson turned to painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel for further inspiration. “Event Horizon was really an opportunity for me to do something visually that was a blank canvas,” he says. “That was the kind of freedom that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been working on a universe that was already established.” The result was some of the most aesthetically striking and unsettling sci-fi production design this side of Scott’s masterwork. The Event Horizon itself has an ominous, cavernous quality to it; like the Overlook Hotel, the ship is very much its own sinister character.

For the production of the film, Paramount Pictures—to borrow a line from a more familiar Sam Neill movie from the ’90s—spared no expense. Event Horizon had a $60 million budget, and while some elements of a film set in outer space required special effects, much of the ship itself was actually built. “I heard from all of the actors individually at one point or another that they found the sets had a disturbing vibe to them,” Anderson says. “That’s how I knew we were doing something right when people would go, ‘I love working with you Paul, but I hate coming to work. It was just horrible. The feeling on set is just … ’ and it was actually the sets themselves, because the crew couldn’t have been nicer. But there was a disturbing vibe. I really felt like we created a very physical haunted house for the actors to interact with.”

Contrary to the ill-fated premise, the Event Horizon production was smooth sailing—in fact, the film didn’t encounter any serious problems until another doomed ship got in its way. James Cameron’s Titanic was originally set to be released in the summer of 1997, but needed to be pushed back. The film, cofinanced with 20th Century Fox, was going over budget and shaping up to be a pricey shitshow. Titanic and Cameron would go on to have a happy ending—i.e., it became the highest-grossing movie of all time to that point; Cameron got to shout “I’m the king of the world!” at the Oscars—but in the interim, Paramount needed something else to fill its summer slot. Enter Event Horizon.

That arrangement was easier said than done. For Anderson, postproduction on the film became a real time crunch. Instead of getting 10 weeks to cut the movie into shape, he had to make do with four, working around the clock. And along with editing the film and finishing the effects, Event Horizon had to be screen-tested for audiences and Paramount executives within this compressed period—and the first test didn’t go well. “I think we never fully recovered in the postproduction process from that initial bad test,” Anderson says.

The finished version of the film runs at around 90 minutes without credits; there was a lot of material that was left on the cutting-room floor. Included in the scraps was a grisly homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s famous match cut in which, instead of a spinning bone transitioning to a satellite in orbit, Captain Miller finds a floating tooth in zero gravity with some gum still attached to the end of it. One moment that did make the final cut—Kathleen Quinlan’s medical technician Peters being tormented by a hallucination of her son, who’s back on Earth, with his legs covered in bloody lesions—was originally even more gruesome, as Anderson had the boy’s legs enveloped by real maggots. “Interestingly, when you put it in front of an audience, it was too much,” he says. “They were horrified by seeing the child and seeing the legs, but then when you showed the maggots, people disengaged. They went, ‘Oh my god,’ they would turn away from the screen. And you realize that as a filmmaker, you’d broken the suspension of disbelief.”

Anderson is the first to admit Event Horizon has some pacing issues, and that the film could’ve included a bit more backstory for Dr. Weir, whose descent into madness aboard the ship is caused by visions of his dead wife. (The ship is basically using Dr. Weir’s wife to beckon him to hell.) “I think when we trimmed it, we made some good decisions but we made some bad decisions as well,” Anderson says. “And again, I say that in the context of the finished movie—a movie that I absolutely love.”

The initial response to Event Horizon, however, was far from welcoming. “The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding,” wrote the late Roger Ebert, who gave the film two stars. For the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum was even more unforgiving: “My idea of hell would be having to see this stinker again.” All told, Event Horizon has a 27 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—if Metacritic is more your thing, its Metascore of 35 isn’t much better—and was a box office bomb, grossing less than half of its production budget. Anderson believes the harsh reception was, at least in part, a result of Paramount’s failure to effectively market the film to audiences. “They almost sold it as a slightly darker version of Star Trek or something: ‘From the studio who brought you Star Trek, here’s another space thing,’” he says. “One of the heads of Paramount called me a little while afterward and said, ‘We should have done much better with that movie when we first released it.’”

But for films misunderstood, critically panned, or just totally unappreciated during their release, all they need is time—and a cult following. Eventually, the consensus around a cult film will change; it’s a frequent occurrence. To offer up just one egregious example: The New York Times once referred to George Miller’s Mad Max as “ugly and incoherent.” While Event Horizon doesn’t exactly have the reputation of Miller’s classic, the tides have unquestionably turned in its favor. (Event Horizon recently popped up on Ringer contributor Adam Nayman’s “Ten Movies That Are Better Than You’ve Heard,” and I promise I had nothing to do with that.)

Still, it can be hard to gauge a film’s cult following and its reputation without quantifiable metrics—enthusiastic posts on the internet take you only so far. So consider this confirmation that Anderson’s movie has transcended its tepid release: Last year, Amazon and Paramount Television announced that they’re working on an Event Horizon TV series, which will be helmed by Adam Wingard. (Anderson tells me he is not involved with the project.) Even with Bezos’s money, you don’t green-light a horror series set in outer space unless you believe there’s an audience for it.

But for the most part, the cult status of Event Horizon centers on Anderson’s vision—and also what could have been. In an era when enough DC fanboys can convince Warner Bros. to actually #ReleaseTheSnyderCut on HBO Max, horror enthusiasts are still clamoring for the #AndersonCut, if you will, of Event Horizon. Because the director left so much gnarly material out of the final version, the prospect of what isn’t in the film has become the stuff of legend. Mostly—infamously—I’m referring to the visions of hell.

Event Horizon’s most enduring imagery, outside of Sam Neill removing his eyes and going buck wild on Captain Miller and his team, has to do with the final video log from the ship’s original crew. When the old footage is restored, Miller and Co. find out what really happened to those poor souls. After engaging the ship’s gravity drive for faster-than-light travel, everyone aboard goes berserk—mutilating one another in a bloody orgy of graphic sex and violence. The actual footage gets around 15 seconds of screen time—I would not recommend slowing it down for all the diabolical details—before Captain Miller says thusly, “We’re leaving.” (Fishburne is low-key hilarious throughout the movie, playing it cool in a situation in which someone has every right to freak out.)

That hell footage is, to put it mildly, extremely fucked up—and is grimly funny if you watch it knowing that Paramount assumed it simply had a darker version of Star Trek on its hands. Since the Los Angeles–based studio was so fixated on Titanic, and Anderson was filming Event Horizon in London, there wasn’t much oversight from Paramount on the visions-of-hell sequences, which he filmed on the weekends with a reduced unit. “I think that maybe they thought we were shooting close-ups of people pressing buttons or something like that,” Anderson says. “Maybe they never saw it until the test screening, and then—they were shocked. I’ll definitely say that.”

Extras needed to be nude on top of all the violence, so some adult film performers were hired. Casting requirements for the sequences got only narrower from there. “I remember there’s a scene where somebody gets some of their teeth knocked out,” Anderson explains. “So we needed people who had teeth missing and were wearing dentures, we then put in these stunt dentures that could get knocked out. So there was some very specific casting for some of it.”

There’s an almost mythic (demonic?) quality to the visions-of-hell sequences, especially because there’s a good chance we’ll never get to see the majority of what was shot. Event Horizon’s extra film footage was dumped in—this is somehow true—a Transylvania salt mine, and when the contents were discovered nearly a decade later, the material had degraded. As much as Anderson would be interested in making a director’s cut of the movie, and is aware of the internet hype around such an endeavor, it’s probably not possible.

I stress probably, though, since there’s a glimmer of hope in the form of a single VHS that contains alternate footage. “Lloyd Levin, who was one of the producers on [Event Horizon], has the VHS, a different cut of the movie,” Anderson says. “The last time we were on the same continent together, he had the VHS cassette, but neither of us had a VHS player. We couldn’t watch it, so I think he still has that. I don’t know whether—I think someone has to do some detective work.” (Counterpoint: Get a VHS player, and when it’s safe again to travel, go and check it out yourself, man; it’s your movie!) Mysterious VHS tape notwithstanding, the home video company Shout! Factory is also planning to release a special collector’s edition Blu-ray of Event Horizon in 2021 through its retro horror label, but even its official announcement on Facebook includes an open invitation for fans to offer leads on how to unearth any additional footage. Though admirable in its efforts, a company hoping to outsource bonus content from folks on the internet doesn’t inspire much confidence.

But while an extended cut of Event Horizon would be a fascinating document, what really makes the horror work in the movie’s current form is how it strikes a balance between gruesome imagery and leaving things to the audience’s imagination. Event Horizon suppresses enough of the hell dimension’s terrors and what the ship’s original crew ends up doing to one another that your mind takes care of the rest. Anderson posits that a gorier cut of Event Horizon might have weakened the film’s scares. After all, we each have a different relationship to fear—and what exactly frightens us. It’s hard to comprehend what being doomed for eternity in hell would even be like. Or, as Dr. Weir puts it: “Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”

For all the tempting what-ifs with the director’s cut enhancing the on-screen horrors, Sam Neill’s committed performance is a big reason the Event Horizon that we have rules so hard. With only 90-odd minutes to run through, Dr. Weir’s descent into a murderous frenzy is startling and full of unforgettable moments. In addition to the shocking sight of the character after removing his eyes, Dr. Weir vivisects Jason Isaacs’s medical doctor DJ in a macabre sequence that required a full body cast of the actor with, per Anderson, “anatomically correct intestines.” (When Isaacs asked to keep his flayed replica after the shooting, the director refused and called him a “twisted mind.”) It’s also one of the key reasons something as wicked as Event Horizon holds rewatch value: As long as you can stomach the gore, Dr. Weir’s pivot from sympathetic scientist to full-blown emissary of hell is a campy tour de force.

But if the notion of Twitter king Sam Neill terrorizing people in space is upsetting, well, that was the point. Anderson was aware of the actor’s horror bona fides through his roles in Omen III: The Final Conflict and In the Mouth of Madness, but knew his cozy reputation with mainstream audiences could be weaponized. “I felt that Sam Neill, in people’s consciousness, he was the good guy from Jurassic Park,” Anderson explains. “He was the man who saved the children, he was America’s hero. And I loved the idea of taking that man who’s so solid and so dependable and reliable, who saves children from dinosaurs, and going, ‘You know what? You can’t trust him, because he’s just insane.’ And I thought Sam did a tremendously good job.”

It’s an indelible character from an indelible movie, one that’s persisted long after its release. From the video game series Dead Space to lesser films like Pandorum and The Cloverfield Paradox, Event Horizon’s imprint is unmistakable, and the fact Amazon is making a TV adaptation should only expand its influence in pop culture. “Some things that maybe hindered Event Horizon commercially when it came out have actually become its strength and the reason why it’s enduring,” Anderson says. You might not see anyone dressed as Eyeless Sam Neill for Halloween—in fact, please report any parents who subject their kids to such a thing—but Event Horizon has the kind of heightened, memeable resonance that feels even more appropriate in 2020.

Regardless of the context in which it was released, a mid-budget, R-rated movie about scientists accidentally opening a gateway to hell in the middle of outer space might be a hard sell. But even when Event Horizon bombed in 1997 and was flayed by critics as brutally as Jason Isaacs aboard a spaceship, Anderson knew he succeeded with the gothic horror story he set out to make. Reception be damned, the filmmaker was proud of the movie—it was unmistakably his.

Besides, there were some big names in the industry who, even back then, realized Anderson had created something special. “I showed it to Kurt Russell, because I was about to do a movie with him,” Anderson says. “When he came out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t care what people think of this movie now. In 15 years’ time, this is the movie you’re going to be glad you made.’ And he was right.”