If Paul W. S. Anderson is well-known for anything, it’s likely for being the director of numerous video game movie adaptations. From the delightfully cheesy 1995 Mortal Kombat, to his long-standing association with the Resident Evil film franchise, and most recently the 2020 Monster Hunter movie, such projects are his most recurring signature as a filmmaker. However, perhaps the most interesting and secretly most influential film in his repertoire is entirely separate from that pattern: the 1997 space horror movie Event Horizon, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary on August 15th.
While known as a cult classic today, Event Horizon wasn’t a success critically or financially on its initial release, garnering largely negative reviews and bombing at the box office. Despite these hurdles, Event Horizon found enough of an audience over the years that it’s continued to be part of the pop culture landscape. There’s even a TV series based on the film apparently in development. So why has Event Horizon endured? Is it just that the film got a bad shake at first bat? That’s part of it, but the circumstances of the film’s release and how it affected the rest of the space horror genre suggest a multi-layered answer.
To wit, I’d contend that Event Horizon’s initial failure bears a lot of the responsibility for the dearth of space horror films afterwards, and its legacy persists at least in part because there are subsequently so few films that tackle the same themes and ideas. How did this happen? Let’s take a look.
Hell Is Only a Word
Event Horizon isn’t a perfect movie, but the elements that have instilled affection for it in the hearts of sci-fi horror fans tend to be the ones that are easily visible. The gothic architecture of the titular ship’s design is haunting and evocative. Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill bring a ton of credibility to the proceedings in fun, pulpy roles. The gore effects and horror sequences are so memorable that a (sadly impossible) hypothetical director’s cut has been discussed by film fans for a quarter of a century. Whatever Event Horizon’s issues are in script and tone, it delivers where it counts in the areas that help turn initially disregarded genre fare into home viewing staples. With a reported $60 million budget and the backing of a major studio like Paramount, it was also one of the only space horror movies that had significant production value at the time.
While the conventions of a story about a crew trapped on a starship and getting slaughtered by some kind of cosmic terror are common knowledge, it’s important to remember that such movies were not common themselves. The template for that type of movie was firmly codified in 1979 by Alien, but aside from Alien’s own sequels, horror films actually set in space (not horror films with alien antagonists set on Earth, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or John Carpenter’s The Thing) tended to be cheaply produced and not widely seen Alien knock-offs like Galaxy of Terror in 1981 or Creature in 1985. The only other big budget example from that era is Tobe Hooper’s 1985 space vampire film Lifeforce, yet even that film is only in space for a short time, with most of the action set on Earth. Event Horizon has a recognizable mold, but it was the first major follow-up to Alien that wasn’t actually part of the Alien franchise in eighteen years.
The Alien Movies in Chronological Order
Event Horizon also stood out because of what its threat actually is: not an alien monster chasing the crew around the ship, but the ship itself, which has been affected by a trip to another dimension that, if not the literal hell, is analogous enough to it. How this actually functions is left to interpretation, but the Event Horizon (the ship, not the movie) appears to have some kind of a consciousness that allows it to instill nightmarish visions in the people on-board, and turns Dr. Weir (Sam Neill) into a murderous maniac who wants to bring the surviving crew back to the hell dimension. Although these are among the reasons the movie is well-regarded by many now, Event Horizon owes just as much if not more of its legacy to it being poorly received upon its initial release.
Stuck in Space
According to Anderson himself on the film’s audio commentary, Event Horizon’s post-production was severely troubled, from a truncated editing schedule to disastrous test screenings, resulting in a movie that lost a significant chunk of its total footage from the finished product. The extended gore sequences, apparently no longer salvageable, have generated a near-mythical status among the film’s fanbase, particularly because the finished version of the film feels like it’s been hacked within an inch of its life in its current 96 minute runtime. It’s impossible to know if a bunch of extra violent footage would have improved its reception. What is known is that Anderson and company didn’t have the time to refine the film’s edit to their satisfaction.
Between a studio that seemed to lose faith in the product and a director that didn’t have adequate time or backing to get his vision fully on-screen, Event Horizon was released in 1997 to middling reception. Given that it was a high profile studio release, Event Horizon’s critical and financial failure undoubtedly had a significant impact on anyone’s ability to get a similar type of movie greenlit at a decent budget level in its immediate aftermath. This effect was only doubled by the nadir of the Alien franchise, Alien: Resurrection, being released the very same year. Event Horizon may have gotten a second wind on home video, but that doesn’t change that when you look at how infrequently films of the same type were released in the decades afterwards, it’s easy to trace the stagnation of the space horror genre back to 1997.
When it comes to non-Alien space horror movies released by major studios, some of the only other examples that fit include Pitch Black in 2000, Sunshine in 2007, Life in 2017, and The Cloverfield Paradox in 2018. An argument could be made for Supernova or Ghosts of Mars, but those are more action films than horror. Beyond this mere handful of examples, studios were not releasing movies comparable to Event Horizon in the 21st century. One of the only other notable space horror films of the past two decades, Pandorum in 2009, was released without the backing of a major studio and was actually co-financed by Anderson’s own production company Impact Pictures. Looking at the sorry state of the genre over the past 25 years, one could easily assume that space horror isn’t “in.” However, Event Horizon’s lasting legacy and impact on other media suggests otherwise.
Event Horizon created a paradigm where it was hard to put another movie like it into the marketplace, yet that paradoxically meant that it has enjoyed much attention as one of the only movies in existence that deals with its subject matter. Cosmic horror may not be in the multiplexes every weekend, but given Event Horizon’s continued relevance, there is clearly an audience still hungry for it. We’ve already mentioned how the movie did well on home video and generated enough interest to put a TV adaptation into development. Event Horizon has lasted in the popular imagination long enough to be referenced as recently as this year in Thor: Love and Thunder, and more substantively was also one of the primary inspirations for the critically acclaimed video game series Dead Space.
That last example isn’t to be discounted even if it’s not in the same artistic medium. Ben Wanat, the production designer on Dead Space 1 and 2 and creative director on Dead Space 3 may have cited Resident Evil 4 as the dev team’s primary inspiration from a game design standpoint, but Event Horizon’s fingerprints are all over the games. From the similar architecture of the internal ship design, the mold of flesh and bones that spreads across the walls, and the hallucinations of deceased loved ones that goad characters along, Dead Space liberally borrowed from Event Horizon and was rewarded for it with high critical praise and enough financial success to justify two direct sequels, multiple animated film and print book spin-offs, and even an upcoming remake. Say what you want about Event Horizon; horror media of its specific flavor can absolutely be profitable.
In a way, what is most poetically tragic about Event Horizon’s legacy is the way that its complicated effect on its own genre mirrors its production troubles. The complete vision of what Anderson wanted Event Horizon to be will never exist again, and the version we currently have is beloved by horror fans just as much for the hypothetical movie they imagine it could have been as the compromised if still compelling film it actually is. Exploring the terrifying unknowability of what we could encounter in space is ripe with cinematic potential, yet Event Horizon not doing as well as its reappraisal suggests it could have under better circumstances means that other attempts at the same concept are few and far between. We may never see what Anderson originally intended for his space horror saga, but hopefully soon, its lasting impact on popular culture will lead to someone else taking up the mantle so it’s no longer one of the only films of its kind.
Carlos Morales writes novels, articles and Mass Effect essays. You can follow his fixations on Twitter.
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