I. Diabolus Ex Machina
Year 2047: A haunted recording travels through space. The sound of women and men screaming. A demonic voice familiar to the Satanic-Panic parents who feared their teenagers’ vinyl LPs played in reverse. The distress signal belongs to the Event Horizon. Seven-years-lost and long thought destroyed, this serpentine Notre Dame of deep space research vessels—at the core of which churns a gravity drive designed to bend spacetime for the purposes of intergalactic and inter-dimensional travel—has suddenly reappeared in orbit around Neptune. Onscreen text during the film’s opening catches us up to speed: In 2015, humans established the first permanent colony on the Moon, while commercial mining began on Mars in 2032. We don’t know the conditions of Earth, but clearly a galactic rehearsal of imperialist history is underway (in a U.S./U.K. co-produced film released one month after the United Kingdom ceded the territory of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, effectively marking the end of the British Empire, no less). Enter the U.S.S. Lewis & Clark. A rescue crew filters the haunted distress signal and isolates a single voice speaking in Latin: “Liberate me [Save me].” Onboard, the Event Horizon’s video log shows its original crew in the throes of an orgiastic slaughter. Traveling through an artificial wormhole at superluminal speed, the ship inexplicably left the known physical universe; it brought something back. Shortly after a rescue crew member realizes the voice on the recording actually says, “Libera tutemet, ex infernis [Save yourself, from Hell],” we find him hanging in body suspension fashion, skin threaded and stretched to the ceiling, vivisected with the sentient spacecraft—diabolus ex machina.
Artists have long conjured the netherworld through infernal noise. The name for Milton’s capital city of Hell in Paradise Lost, Pandæmonium, still denotes noisy chaos and disorder in casual language. Additionally, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sound recordings themselves became inextricably associated with death when phonograph companies began to market their new technologies as a way to hear “the voices of the dead.” Further still, as Sound Studies scholar Jonathan Sterne writes in his book The Audible Past, because these technologies, capable of transubstantiating disembodied voices, developed concurrently with new embalming techniques for the preservation of human corpses, “sound reproduction itself became a distinctive way of relating to, understanding, and experiencing death, history, and culture.” And sound haunts all those on board the Event Horizon. Its emits a grotesque electric hum, arouses violent auditory hallucinations, and preserves the voices of its dismembered crew. To borrow a phrase from Sterne, the ship becomes a “resonant tomb.” Roger Ebert perhaps described the film’s sound design best as “those barely audible, squeaky, chattering, voice-like noises that we remember from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which give you the creepy feeling that little aliens are talking about you.” Only, Event Horizon exchanges extraterrestrials for a perils-of-technology story set inside a haunted house. This medieval space vessel is The Overlook Hotel downloaded to HAL 9000. Paramount Pictures even promoted Event Horizon as The Shining in space (with metal orthodontic cheek retractors).
II. Techno-gothic Soundscapes
Premium Nineties schlock, Event Horizon lacked both the subcultural capital of low-budget genre fare and the prestige of industry-advancing spectacles like the decade’s sci-fi titans Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, or The Matrix. However, Event Horizon’s postmodern circuitry does yield intertextual communication with all three of these films. At the start of the decade, Sam Neill showed us the dystopian limits of high-finance scientism inside Jurassic Park, but aboard the Event Horizon, his eyeless Dr. Weir (the ship’s creator) becomes the literal embodiment of government-funded Promethean hubris. By the end of the decade, Laurence Fishburne’s Captain Miller goes on to command the Nebuchadnezzar as Morpheus. And back in 1995, we watched Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell, wife of Jim Lovell, suffer a vivid and foreboding nightmare about her husband being ripped from the Apollo 13 spacecraft. On the Event Horizon, rather than a premonition, her character’s nightmares are idiosyncratic visions of regret. Because, as with all good ghost stories, contrition becomes an implement of psychological torture that ultimately manifests itself in corporeal quietus, and the Event Horizon wields human guilt with surgical precision.
When Dr. Weir hears the voice of his dead wife, we wonder if she’s on the spacecraft or merely in his head. Each time a crew member experiences an auditory hallucination, we’re left wondering if the violence that follows is actually happening. But by the time a merciless banging sound sends Quinlan’s character running down a corridor, to an enclosed space with the others, just before the noise catches up to her and bends the room’s metal door in half, the distinction between real and imagined, or even hearing and seeing, ceases to exist. “Have you heard it?” one crew member asks the others, “It shows you things.” And his odd conflation of visual and aural stimuli quite succinctly diagnoses the psychotechnical effects of sound in horror cinema.
As a young child, I remember walking into my father’s living room one night and seeing a deranged axe-wielding Jack Torrence lumbering around on TV. My father encouraged me to look at him instead of the screen, but the sound continued. When I asked what the movie flickering in the darkened room behind me was about, his answer couldn’t have been more perfect: “It’s about a dad who has ghosts in his head.” That’s one hell of a thought to put in the mind of a five-year-old.
Soundtrack-wise, Event Horizon’s musical pairing of film composer Michael Kamen and British electronica duo Orbital—think Max Steiner run through an E-mu sampler with an 808—falls well short of The Shining’s Wendy Carlos and Penderecki (et al.). Still, the film’s mashup of S&M kink and high-voltage spiritualism conjures a slate of dread-inducing artists—from 12th-century nun Herrad of Landsberg, to Dante, Bosch, and Coleridge, all the way through H. R. Giger, Clive Barker, and Floria Sigismondi—such that Event Horizon became somewhat of a techno-gothic prototype, its style showing up in a number of subsequent Nineties movies—e.g., Stigmata (with a Billy Corgan-produced soundtrack) or End of Days (containing the first song released by a newly Chinese Democratized Guns ’n’ Roses)—where archaic languages, industrial guitar riffs, Carl Orff-infused synthesizers, rosary beads, and drum machines swirl around in a Hot Topic-noir aesthetic. Then, in 2007, Danny Boyle’s more refined scion, Sunshine, even again paired a film composer (John Murphy) with a British electronica duo (Underworld) for its soundtrack. All the while, Event Horizon’s closing song—“Funky Shit” by The Prodigy—has remained a testament to a late-Nineties regime of globally popular electronic dance music, for better or worse. And just this week, Variety reported that Amazon and Paramount are developing an Event Horizon series for TV. This relatively forgotten cult film casts a long shadow indeed.
III. Murmur of Earth
In 1997, popular music in the U.K. seemed particularly interested in space travel and the potential perils of modern technology. Among others, Ladies & Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space by Spiritualized electrified the soundscapes of Brian Eno’s Apollo album, David Bowie’s Earthling (produced with Eno) incorporated drum and bass techniques into his galactic oeuvre, and Radiohead’s paradigmatic rock album Ok Computer brought us “Paranoid Android,” in all its twitchy angst and anxiety, and the waltz-swaying “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which finds Thom Yorke awash in decussated strands of reverb-drenched guitars and keyboard tines, singing about aliens “making home movies for the folks back home” as he dreams of joining the extraterrestrials aboard their ship only to return to Earth, further alienated, unable to communicate “the stars and the meaning of life” to anyone he knows. But by 1997, music from every hemisphere on the planet was already traveling over twenty-one billion kilometers from Earth.
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which today continues to transmit data from the outer edges of our solar system. Attached to this existentially doomed assemblage of dying technology is the so-called Golden Record. The most famous recordings inscribed on the V1’s gold-plated copper disk are probably Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C” and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, but the record also includes Delta blues music, Javanese gamelan, Zairean singing, Japanese shakuhachi tunes, raga music from India, Navajo chanting, traditional wedding songs from a number of cultures, Azerbaijan bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow, and of course a large selection of Viennese classical music, as well as a set of field recordings taken from diverse soundscapes dubbed “Sounds of Earth.” Illustrations engraved on the disk’s cover serve as instructions for how to play the recordings, so that, should distant intelligent lifeforms ever intercept the spacecraft, sonic contact may be made.
It’s an admittedly fantastical but no less romantic idea. “We cast this message into the cosmos,” said then-president of the U.S. Jimmy Carter, in a short message also recorded for the V1 capsule. “This is a present from a small distinct world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.” Seven years ago this month, V1 crossed the threshold of interstellar space, becoming the first ever human-made object to exit the heliosphere. It now wanders the Milky Way traveling over one hundred kilometers-per-second, inconceivably alone.
Revisiting Event Horizon in 2019, a year when geologists in Iceland (this month, in fact) will memorialize “dead ice” with a message to future generations concerning the ravages of global climate change; Elon Musk has already launched SpaceX, in collaboration with NASA, vowing to establish the first city on Mars by 2050; and a new uncaring U.S. president boasts how he could annihilate ten million people in Afghanistan “literally in ten days” and slurs promises of a new techno-imperialist Space Force for exospheric military ops, humanity seems to be daring the Voyager 1 to become, in Jonathan Sterne’s words again, a “resonant tomb”—another sound recording adrift in space threatening to become haunted. As Event Horizon’s Dr. Weir puts it, “Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse.”
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon
Event Horizon screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18. Tickets and more information available on the Trylon’s website. Make it a space-horror double feature and check out It! The Terror from Beyond Space.