Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Phenomena (1997, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson)
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
OG: This was a favorite of mine back in the day; I used to own a copy on VHS, back when VHS was about the only way you could own copies of movies. But prior to sitting down to watch it for this, I hadn’t seen it since college. (That’s about fifteen years ago, for those of you keeping track at home.) Recently, when it first showed up on Netflix streaming, I had a conversation with Simon Berman of Strix Publishing (who’ll be putting out the deluxe hardcover reissue of my first collection, Never Bet the Devil, Kickstarter coming soon!) and he was saying that this film had what he considered an undeserved bad reputation. Which was news to me, as most everyone I know seems to be fond of it. I know you’ve seen it before as well, did you know that it had a bad reputation, and how did it hold up for you?
JR: What’s funny (and somewhat… sad, if you think about it) is that I’d given myself a sense that this movie wasn’t very good. That was due mostly to the ill will I’d built up for director Paul W.S. Anderson, and for 90s CGI. Looking back on my retroactive negative attitude towards the film, I realize I was caught up in my post-college (that’s nine years ago!) desperation to “grow” in taste and refinement. Somehow I had convinced myself that this movie was bad or overrated, simply because Alien Vs. Predator was bad.
That is not at all the case.
I discovered this movie while I was in high school. I rented it when some friends came over to spend the night, mostly on the fact that it starred Sam Neill and it was in the “Horror” section of my local small-town grocery store’s rental display. This movie terrified me and those of us who stayed up to watch it. It was so intense that I compared it to The Exorcist in terms of what unnerved and frightened me.
I’m happy to report that the film, post-self-important-critical-reassessment, absolutely stands tall as a—and yes, I use this term carefully—classic 90s horror film. And, in an ironic twist considering my pre-developed palate, is a competent and well-made throwback to haunted house and sci-fi thrillers like The Haunting, Galaxy of Terror, and Alien and Aliens.
OG: Yeah, I can’t really imagine anyone saying this film is bad, though I can also see why it might not quite reach classic status. Underneath its Hellrasier in Spaaaaaace! logline, there really isn’t a lot of meat on its bones. (The screenwriter went on to pen Firestarter 2 and Mutant Chronicles and… that’s about it.)
But it’s a good, solid movie that mostly looks amazing! (The cartoony 90s CGI notwithstanding, which is really only a problem when things are supposed to be floating in zero G, as pretty much everything else is practical.) The eponymous Event Horizon remains one of my favorite spaceship designs of all time, both inside and out, and the gravity drive room is, I’ll just go ahead and say it, as iconic (and cool looking) as anything to ever find its way into the horror canon. It’s the Lament Configuration of this movie, and is just an incredible set from top to bottom. I don’t really know who’s responsible for that stuff, but I know that the production designer for Event Horizon had previously worked on Hardware which… makes a lot of sense.
I think any bad reputation this movie might have probably comes—as you sort of implied—from retroactive dislike of Paul W.S. Anderson. And lord knows AvP was a disappointment, though AvP: Requiem does show how much worse yet it could have been in other hands. I have this private theory that Anderson is essentially trying to be a late-era John Carpenter, and I think that Event Horizon is about as close as he ever got, minus maybe the first ten or fifteen minutes of Resident Evil. Replace the more restrained score by Michael Kamen and Orbital with some pounding synth stuff, and Event Horizon would be vintage mid-list Carpenter. Sam Neill is even playing sort of a variation on his character from In the Mouth of Madness three years earlier.
JR: For the record, In The Mouth of Madness has, at various points in time, occupied the space reserved for my favorite horror movie of all time. It’s up and down in recent years, but that movie hits all the right notes for me.
The Event Horizon is a glorious setting. In a making-of documentary Anderson describes how they basically reconfigured Notre Dame into a spaceship. Despite everything being gray and black, the different rooms and spaces within the ship have their own unique look, but everything fits together. The incorporation of stone-like designs, the columns, patterned walls, the green-lit circuit board tunnels, the rune-like etchings on the iconic gravity drive, and candlelit style of lighting really works.
Now, I know you won’t meet my “classic,” assessment, but in my defense, please note I said “90s classic,” which is a far cry from “80s” or “70s classic.”
The actors did a great job considering they all had limited time and dialogue to differentiate themselves beyond what their occupation was. Laurence Fishburne as an even-headed merchant marine captain is a great foil to Sam Neill’s increasingly arrogant and madcap performance.
OG: As a big, big Hannibal fan, it was fun to see a pre-Matrix Larry Fishburne looking so young (albeit not Apocalypse Now/Nightmare on Elm Street 3-young), as well as playing “spot the actor I can recognize now” among the supporting cast (Jason Isaacs! Sean Pertwee!)…
Everyone always calls Alien “a haunted house movie in space,” which I’ve never really gotten from it so much. For me it always felt more like an early-era slasher in space. But Event Horizon is definitely a haunted house movie in space, right down to the bleeding walls before all is said and done. And then of course there’s that great and oft-quoted line which, like many of the visuals in the movie, is a classic, even if the total package never quite reaches that exalted position in my book: “Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see.”
JR: Sounds like we both agree that this movie has aged pretty well (CGI aside), and it’s worth checking out even if you don’t have the nostalgia factor in place. I might just revisit Anderson’s Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Apocalypse to see if I still enjoy them now as much as I did when I was in high school and college…
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters and the author of a number of spooky books. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and other venues, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. You can find him online at http://orringrey.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.