There are a number of directors for whom the kindest thing you can say is “they’re competent.” Paul Anderson I would place in that category. He’s clearly good enough to work steadily, and has somehow managed to make six Resident Evil and three Death Race movies profitable, but he’s never really going to be someone superlatives are laid on. Event Horizon maybe is a good illustration of this, as it is a potentially interesting idea that clearly got away from the film-maker.

At an implausible point in the near future, a rescue ship crew led by Captain Miller is escorting physicist Dr. Weir to Neptune, the last known location of the Event Horizon, a spaceship that disappeared seven years ago which has recently reappeared. The ship was on a secret mission to test a gravity drive which would allow it to travel faster than the speed of light by creating wormholes in space to move through, but has returned derelict and with signs of massive violence. Strange events begin targeting Miller’s crew, and an increasingly unstable Weir, backed by the recovered ship logs, suggest that when the ship moved “outside” space it became infected by a malign align intelligence, killed the previous crew, and is now looking for more victims. Between Weir and the ship itself, most of Miller’s crew is killed, and two survivors escape in the Event Horizon‘s “lifeboat” while Miller sacrifices himself to destroy Weir and the evil ship, though it is suggested that enough of the evil has followed the survivors home to wreak further havoc.

Stylistically, the film wears it’s influences on its sleeve, incorporating pretty shamelessly the weathered industrial aesthetic of Alien with the S&M spikiness of Hellraiser, with some dashes of The Shining and Prince of Darkness thrown in there for good measure. That’s an impressive pedigree of films to be cribbing from, but mostly it just ends up reminding you that those are mostly much better films than this one. And while this is another in Sam Neil’s series of films where he eventually succumbs to the whims of vaguely Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space, the movie itself doesn’t even have the nerve to take a stab at any interesting conceptions of “evil” or malice. A “science gone to far” theme is staring them right in the face, they set themselves up for a man doomed by grief and guilt, but nope, they end up going with “hell is out in space, somewhere” and an evil ghost ship.

I think one of the minor flaws is that, in general, horror and sci-fi aren’t an easy mix. Overlap isn’t unusual, and a lot of “sci-fi” films are basically just slasher films with aliens in place of masked killers, and horror has never shied away from using science/scientists as easy markers of hubris leading to tragedy and terror. But what you usually see, then, is a horror film in sci-fi drag, and that’s pretty much what this is.

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The Other, 1972 ed., Thomas Tryon
I had someone get mad at me, once, for “spoiling” the ending of this.
It’s been forty years…

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Taking a brief, one week break, for family reasons. In the meantime, have a Very Robey Cover:

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Look, we all know that the 90s were a pretty dire time for horror films, on the whole. So, let’s just get through Luis Llosa’s Anaconda, a misguided attempt to do a PG-13 Jaws riff, and go on with our day.

Jennifer Lopez is a documentary film-maker bringing an obnoxious British documentary host who is in no way meant to be David Attenborough on a river journey in search of a semi-mythical lost tribe. Along with her is sound-guy Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, and Owen Wilson in one of his many “guy you hope dies horribly” roles. Shortly after it becomes apparent they are lost they encounter Jon Voight as an ethnically unspecific (seriously, he can’t keep an accent straight for more than five minutes) priest turned snake hunter, who claims to know where to find the tribe they are looking for but clearly has his own agenda. Which is to take the crew deep into the Amazon in search of giant anacondas, which proceed to eat the crew one by one (save for Stoltz, who spends most of the film bed-ridden in what I’m guessing was a “rewrite me out of this, please” contract renegotiation). Eventually everyone but Lopez, Cube and Stoltz are dead and they go home, having survived improbable snake attacks.

You can see the very broad hints of something trying to be good, clawing it’s way out of here. A more clever script-writer would have noticed the parallels between the crew seeking to exploit the indigenous people of the Amazon for ratings and Voight and Wilson threatening a Latina and an African-American man in their pursuit of money from selling a big snake, but the obviousness of that symbolism is never taken advantage of. Instead, we get a very obviously plastic snake head and some dodgy CGI on obvious sound-stages. What little fun is to be found in the film is of the unintended variety, like Voight’s terrible performance and the joy of watching Owen Wilson be killed by a snake. It can’t even rise to the level of decent scares, since the snake is so obviously a prop and the PG-13 rating means all the tension is watered down and the film can’t even resort to gore to spice things up.

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It’s clear that studios had hopes that these “horror movies as action films” would go bigger than they eventually ended up going. It wouldn’t make any sense to give Peter Hyams, the man who gave the world Timecop, a prestige project based on a best-selling novel like The Relic if you didn’t expect a big return. What they ended up with was an incoherent mess that, as pretty much every critic at the time reminded us, was trying to ape the vibe of Alien “but in a museum!” while making it clear that no one involved in the production actually understood why Alien worked.

We open with a not at all culturally sensitive scene of creepy anthropologist John Whitney observing native religious rituals in South America, and then later becoming so panicked over his artifacts being shipped back to Chicago that he stows away aboard a freighter. Some time later, the boat arrives in Chicago with the entire crew killed, and a mysterious series of murders involving decapitations begin to occur at the natural history museum, with intrepid biologist Penelope Ann Miller caught in the middle of gruff detective Tom Sizemore’s investigation. Political pressure stalls the investigation so that the Mayor can attend the museum’s lush new gala, which results in the local 1%ers being slaughtered by a giant lizard-bug creature that eats human brains. Penelope eventually figures out that the creature is a bizarrely mutated John Whitney and blows up him, saving the day.

It’s a mess, honestly. It’s hard to see what, exactly, the film-makers were aiming for, as they keep cutting between elements of actual suspense and mystery and scenes where problems are solved with guns and explosions. The characters are all stock, with no real depth, and there’s a creepily racist undertone that pops up from time to time, from Miller’s rival scientist, a cheating, scheming Asian nerd, to Miller’s constant comments about “primitive” people, to the wholescale othering of Native Americans and their mutative herbs that underlies the film’s plot. But where the film really fails is in it’s half-assedness as an adaptation. Relic, the novel, had a sequel out in time for the film, but the film not only kills off recurring characters, but also completely excises a central character that would have opened up the film to franchise potential. It speaks to the sort of laziness that typifies the film.

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