I have a very specific idea of what a good horror movie feels like. It has very little to do with the movie itself — the feeling doesn’t relate to what the movie should be about, or how it should scare me, or what social relevance it should have. My archetypal horror-movie feeling — the euphoric experience I am always trying to get back to — is about set and setting. I am in my parents’ den, at two or three in the morning, with all the lights off. There’s a scratchy, polyester-y knitted afghan over me, and a few friends, in varying states of consciousness, sprawled around me. The movie is playing on the VCR, fuzzy and distorted in the way tapes were, and something has just happened that is sofucken’ sick.
I don’t have a cinematic language yet. I have no judgment as concerns the movie’s aesthetic quality. What matters is the objective fucken sick shit-ness of whatever has just occurred on screen, and whether I have betrayed any weakness by screaming or hiding my eyes, which (I am proud to report) I rarely do.
There are so many movies that I remember this way — The Amityville Horror, Carrie; one night we did the first four Alien movies, from sundown to sunup, and I was the only person still awake for Alien: Resurrection, which felt like a blessing — but the archetypal horror movie, the one whose sick factor trumps all others, is not a good movie at all. In my memory, it’s 1998, and I am watching Event Horizon.
Event Horizon is a bad movie, but it’s gloriously bad, in part because its makers were so familiar with what a good horror movie looked like. There’s a spirit of happy, affectionate plagiarism going on throughout, and I say this knowing that “happy” and “affectionate” are the two adjectives no-one else is ever going to apply to Event Horizon. Summing up its plot, as an adult, means reflexively crediting everything it’s ripped off, the way newspaper reviews will slip the names of actors and directors into (parentheses) in mid-sentence. To sum up:
It’s the far future. People go to space now. A spaceship full of exhausted working Joes is sent to investigate a spooky distress call (Alien) from a ship that was supposedly lost years ago. Among the working Joes is Sam Neill, whose wife killed herself (Solaris) and who is now haunted by strange space visions of her (Solaris) which seem to be aggravated by the presence of the spooky space ship (Solaris, this whole thing with Sam Neill is Solaris, just roll with it). The reason the spooky ship disappeared and then re-appeared is that it has been… TO HELL!!!!! Which, I guess, is in space now. Hell is a place where people mutilate each other and do strange sex tortures (Hellraiser). Going to Hell has changed the ship. It is now haunted! But also alive! Filled with its own malevolent consciousness and urge to be spooky! (The Shining.) It torments all the crew members by showing them images of their deepest traumas (Solaris) and in particular tempts Sam Neill until he decides he wants to murder everyone and live in the spooky haunted place for all eternity (The Shining) and gets him super into sex tortures until he shaves his head and gives himself alarming facial scarring and wanders around being British at people (Hellraiser) until nearly every last one of the working space-Joes is dead (Alien).
None of this is even a little bit subtle, by the way.
You can process Event Horizon as a derivative mashup of several better movies — the Girl Talk of horror — and that assessment, objectively, would be correct. But try to imagine how this looks when you haven’t seen any of those better movies yet, and you find yourself suddenly watching something that is The Shining and Alien and Solaris and Hellraiser all at the same time. It’s stupid, and it’s cheesy, and it’s derivative, and it was made in the late ‘90s, so there’s bad CGI and techno music all over everything, and to you, the little kid who just started watching horror movies at sleepovers, it is completely, mindblowingly fucking awesome. To me, the adult who still idly watches Event Horizon while answering e-mails, it still is.
There are so many things I love about Event Horizon. I love them in the way you love a bad movie, which is to say, they are more dear to me than anything might find in a better one. I had to find them myself, cherish them in a way that is personal and fully unintended by the creators. This is a movie that takes itself incredibly seriously; it’s grim and dark and visceral in the way you’d expect late-‘90s fare to be. It was a moment where creators were surfing the aesthetic of Marilyn Manson album covers and gory Nine Inch Nails videos, where David Fincher was a hot new name and the drab, rainy gore of Se7en or even Alien3 felt stylish and cutting edge. Clive Barker supposedly consulted on Event Horizon, early in development. (This is one of the things I love — his “consultation” evidently consisted of giving them permission to plagiarize Hellraiser.) As you would expect, with all these influences, this is a movie with a grim, stone-faced, even sadistic attitude (the scene in the airlock — where a young kid is brainwashed into killing himself in the most painful way possible and regains consciousness too late to stop it — is something I fast-forward through to this day) which is why it delights me to realize that, like all incredibly serious things, it is also deeply silly.
There’s Jason Isaacs’ incredibly depressing EDM act:
There’s Laurence Fishburne reacting to a tape of someone puking up his own intestines as if he’s just been Rick-Rolled by an obnoxious co-worker:
There’s the filmmakers’ concern that we won’t realize Sam Neill misses his dead wife, which they resolve by making sure he carries 47 pictures of her on his person at all times:
There’s the ridiculously ominous set design. The “medical bay” is entirely made up of sharp, stabbing instruments that can drop down from the ceiling with no warning. (And they do. Oh, how they do!) The “engine room” is a spherical chamber equipped, for reasons no-one ever explains, with 360-degree wall-mounted spikes, which must be approached by walking through a man-sized pencil sharpener.
It’s not just that Event Horizon is a movie I watched in my teens, but that it is more or less what would happen if an actual teenager directed a horror movie. It’s a Staind song of a movie, the directorial equivalent of a KoRn lyric sharpied onto a Trapper Keeper: Deeply, guilelessly immature and sophomoric while draped in a cloak of self-seriousness, striving to be edgy and artistic and landing on goofy and gratuitous sixty percent of the time, and always, always, looking for the goriest gore shot, the jumpiest jump scare, figuring how to fit the maximum possible amount of blood and guts and tits and ripped-out eyeballs into every moment; it is a movie which prizes the quality of fucken sickness above all things.
I don’t know what brings you joy. I can probably never fully communicate my own joy to you. All of us have certain artifacts that are hooked directly into our experience of happiness; a song you choreographed a dance routine to in sixth grade, or a dress you wore the night you met the love of your life, or a toy you begged your parents to buy, or, in my case, a man puking his entire abdominal cavity directly into the camera while a weary and not-having-this-shit Laurence Fishburne watches from inside a 22nd-century spaceship that still uses DVD players.
I don’t know why Event Horizon makes me so happy, but it does. It is plugged directly into my sense of what being a kid is — how desperately I wanted to be serious or edgy or tough, and how incredibly awkward and dorky I came off eighty percent of the time, how savvy and jaded and pop-culture-knowledgeable I felt, and how I was unable to recognize a direct rip-off of Hellraiser when it was two feet in front of me, how excited I got about silly things, what eternal significance I gave to temporary things, how important it felt to know everything, and how in fact I knew nothing, and the realization, which comes only long afterward, and too late to be useful, that this knowing-nothing is what innocence is made of, and that innocence is a dear and tender thing.
Once upon a time, there was a movie about a spooky spaceship; a movie where the spaceship — the spaceship which is, I remind you, floating through space — is introduced with the sound of rumbling thunder and crashing lightning on the soundtrack. Does it make sense? No. Is it good? Also no. Yet this movie, due to some confluence of timing and luck, is my archetypal idea of what watching a horror movie ought to feel like, and why horror movies are fun. I’m old, and I’m tired, and on some days I feel like I will never be truly surprised again. I still watch these movies, though. I still watch Event Horizon, and when I do, I feel the old fever coming back once again.
Event Horizon is available to stream on Netflix. They’re going to make a TV show soon. It’s gonna be sick.
Sorry for the delay, and welcome back! As always, if you have anything you want me to cover, respond to this e-mail or Tweet at me.