Week of the ’90s: The 1997 sci-fi horror film flopped at theaters and critics alike. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the director tells us about the one thing that made audiences take a second look.
Event Horizon got off to a bad start. Released in theaters on August 15, 1997, it opened to mixed reviews and number 4 at the box office. And then something funny happened: When “Event Horizon” was released on the fledgling DVD format in December 1998, it began to garner a cult following.
“That really brought ‘Event Horizon’ to a new audience,” director Paul WS Anderson told IndieWire. “It’s a great looking film and when you saw it on VHS it wasn’t really of the quality it was in the cinemas. When the DVD came out the quality skyrocketed and I think the stark beauty finally came out.”
When the studio realized what they had, they made the best of it. “They started selling a lot of DVDs and they changed the packaging without changing the film and they sold a lot of them the composure,” he said. “Then they would trade the box again!”
Paramount is releasing another version of Event Horizon this month in a beautiful 4K upgrade to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary. Watching the film again makes one understand how harrowing its gothic visual style and unrelenting horror must have been in a summer that included softer sci-fi hits like “Men in Black” and “Contact.”
Screenwriter Philip Eisner’s tale of astronauts going insane aboard a haunted spaceship was exactly what Anderson wanted after his second feature film, PG-13 martial arts opus Mortal Kombat. This film was a hit that gave Anderson more freedom to do what he wanted, and what he wanted was to blast audiences with a gory riff on horror films like Alien, The Shining, and The Haunting frighten. The challenge was figuring out how to honor their traditions without becoming enslaved by them, and Anderson solved that problem with his film’s key location.
“I didn’t want Event Horizon to be an ‘alien’ wannabe or a ripoff,” Anderson said. “I felt that the way to avoid that was to make it a gothic film and base it on one of the finest pieces of gothic architecture in the world, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. So we scanned the cathedral into a computer, disassembled it, and then removed all the parts of Notre Dame’s Event Horizon ship.”
Anderson’s ability to come up with futuristic sci-fi episodes for Notre Dame’s components — turning the gargoyles into antenna clusters, for example — is a big part of why “Event Horizon” remains as eerie as, say, Robert Wise’s “The haunting”.
During Event Horizon test screenings, Anderson learned another lesson from Wise’s film: Even in a film as gory as Event Horizon, less could be more. One of the film’s biggest scares happens when Lieutenant Commander DJ (Jason Isaacs) appears behind Lieutenant Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) shortly after seeing a vision of her dead son, but it didn’t work in the first cut.
“Originally the bed was full of maggots, which I think would be great, but it was too much for the audience and they looked the other way,” Anderson said. “So when Jason Isaacs showed up, no one jumped. That was an important lesson for me that horror is like comedy and there is a right time to deliver the punchline. You don’t want to milk it too much.”
Aside from the construction of Eisner’s script and Anderson’s sense of style, Event Horizon deserves credit for its strong cast. Anderson had the opportunity to work with a cast of veteran actors for the first time in his career, and he made the most of it. “I think they all realized that this was only my third film and I don’t come from a big theatrical background,” Anderson said. “They really helped me, and [Laurence] Fishburne in particular was a very generous man who gave me pointers and nudged me in the right direction when it came to staging and judging good performances. He made numerous notes in his script and something I saw quite a bit was “NAR”. Once I went up to him and asked him, ‘Fish, what does that mean?’ He said, “Paul, that means no acting involved.”
During the script’s NAR moments, Fishburne’s character found himself in such extreme situations that he could easily react – facilitated by practical sets and effects. “He was in a real spaceship with real sparks flying, and there wasn’t a lot of bluescreen or greenscreen work,” Anderson said. “That was very important to me because if you just put an actor in front of a blue screen and you’re like, ‘Imagine this happening, imagine this happening,’ you load a lot of stuff on them before they at all come at all perform”.
Anderson also learned the need to mix different acting styles in an early scene between Fishburne, who was best in early takes, and [Sam] Neill, who liked to improvise and work up to his best.
“I learned my lesson very quickly,” Anderson said. “If you notice, there’s only that one scene with the steadicam where you see them both talking at the same time. It took a long time because by the time Fishburne was able to do it, Sam was slowly groping his way to a performance. And when Sam killed it, Fish was checked out because he had already done it. After that I shot all of their scenes together in a more conventional coverage so I could pick the best performances.”
Ultimately, Anderson felt that the film’s scariest moments came from the actors’ reactions rather than the horrifying events themselves. “I did a movie called ‘Alien vs. Predator,’ so I worked with two of the deadliest creatures in the universe,” he said. “And the reality of the two deadliest creatures in the universe is that they’re guys in rubber suits who can barely stand up and can’t see where they’re going. They’re not scary at all. In the first “Alien” is Sigourney Weaver’s reaction to being a scary creature rather than a man in a rubber suit. She made you believe in the horror. Ditto for Jurassic Park, where they play the arrival of the beautiful, expensive CG dinosaur from Sam Neil’s reaction. You see his reaction to the dinosaurs before they show you the CG shot and you’re ready to believe that what he saw is awesome because he sold it. Those were important lessons for me. Nothing frightens an audience more than their own imagination.”
This article was published as part of IndieWire’s ’90s Spectacular Week. Visit our 90’s Week page for more information.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/08/event-horizon-paul-w-s-anderson-interview-1234749714/ Event Horizon at 25: Interview with director Paul WS Anderson