The summer of 1997 ended as most summers at the movies do, with a whimper rather than a bang. After three-plus months of dinosaurs, aliens, superheroes, terrorist villains, international men of mystery, and Nicolas Cage action vehicles, Hollywood had reached the stretch of the release calendar it invariably reserves for its least auspicious projects — that period right before Labor Day when the studios commit to a self-fulfilling prophecy of soft box office and half-empty auditoriums.
In ’97, this annual last gasp of summer brought two sci-fi horror movies set in dark, cavernous spaces — both blessed with overqualified casts, both directed by future somebodies in their creative infancy, and both destined to flop upon unceremonious, consecutive release. A quarter-century ago, neither audiences nor critics thought much of Event Horizon or Mimic, the R-rated fear machines that arrived in theaters back-to-back, literally one week apart. Today, however, they look like the dual Platonic ideal of a certain kind of reliably undervalued Hollywood entertainment: The unpretentious studio thriller annually relegated to the junkyard of late August, after the last of the season’s giant FX extravaganzas have come and gone from the multiplex.
Part of the appeal of the late-August thriller is that it could never be confused for a bigger production. These films are digestifs to a season of bloated, high-calorie blockbusters. They’re leaner and meaner, emphasis often on the mean. In a sense, you could call Event Horizon and Mimic bizarro-world distortions of traditional summer movie thrills: Their special-effects spectacle comes cheaper and grislier. Both even had big-budget analogues of sorts that summer. If you rolled your eyes through the touchy-feelies of Contact, the antidote was Horizon’s conversely eye-gouging vision of interstellar communion. Likewise, while The Lost World: Jurassic Park let a spunky teen tag-along best a raptor with her gymnastic moves, Guillermo del Toro’s giant-bug creature feature Mimic smashed taboos by having its own leaping CGI attraction tear a couple of little kids to smithereens.
Unnerving space tale
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, hot off the sleeper success of his Mortal Kombat adaptation, Event Horizon exemplifies the energetic, cannibalistic spirit of late-August thrillers. For Anderson, this tale of a spaceship sent to investigate the disappearance of a much larger vessel just beyond Neptune becomes an opportunity to fingerpaint with the blood of genre touchstones. There’s a little of Hellraiser and Jacob’s Ladder in its shock cuts of Grand Guignol sadomasochistic reverie, and of The Shining in its ghostly hallucinations and elevators releasing torrents of red blood. The chief inspiration is probably Ridley Scott’s original Alien, from which Anderson borrows elements of futuristic production design (narrow corridors, high and leaky ceilings, Gothic-industrial grandeur) and the testy banter of Laurence Fishburne’s crew, emerging from cryosleep into a waking nightmare.
Event Horizon is genuinely unnerving, even scary at times.
For all its liberal recycling, Event Horizon has a flavor of its own. It’s an entertaining deep-space haunted house flick, a Lovecraftian B-movie on a B+ budget. If nothing else, it can make a modern viewer nostalgic for the days when the studios would throw a healthy but not excessive $60 million at a project. Anderson spends that money well on the construction of baroquely imposing sets and intricate model work; only the digital effects detrimentally date the film, and they’re used more sparingly than was the norm in ’97. (Compare the occasional unsightly ripple of cosmic energy to the nonstop rush of butt-ugly video game graphics that make up the same month’s Spawn.)
It helps, of course, that Event Horizon is genuinely unnerving, even scary at times. Though Anderson has arguably made his name on a slightly more kinetic brand of juvenile joystick pulp, he’s more deliberate here, building some real suspense in the first act (another echo of Alien) and creating pockets of ominous, pinprick-in-the-vacuum silence that he can disrupt with a gnarly flash of violence. Event Horizon eventually makes good on its promise to release hell on its ill-fated astronauts. What’s sneakily effective is the way Anderson offers graphic Fangoria fare in almost subliminal doses, jolting us with random, blink-and-you-miss-them glimpses of a literal blood orgy. The effect is that what you imagine is worse than what you actually see — a classic late-August trick, twisting restrictions on gruesome content to haunting, suggestive advantage.
Rushed into theaters by Paramount to fill the void created when Titanic missed its original summer release date, Event Horizon made a paltry $26 million at the domestic box office. It’s accrued a cult following since, though, with fans recently clamoring for the restoration of excised footage, including some unused splatter. (A new 25th-anniversary Blu-ray collects a few deleted scenes, but Anderson insists a true director’s cut would require Snyder Cut-style reshoots.)
There does now exist a director’s cut of Mimic, which hit theaters one week after Event Horizon. But though the movie would improbably spawn a couple direct-to-video sequels, it hasn’t gained the reputation of an unsung classic, even as Guillermo del Toro has become one of the most beloved genre directors on the scene today. One might wonder, actually, if his more mature later work has left his compromised Hollywood debut looking like a minor transitional folly — albeit one crawling with preoccupations he’d continue to indulge from here, including gooey insects, themes of sin and trauma, and a perverse career-long obsession with putting adorable pint-sized children in mortal danger.
Del Toro bugs out
If Event Horizon takes the alien out of Alien, Mimic takes Alien out of space and drops it into the sprawling sewers and subways of Manhattan. Certainly, there’s a strong dollop of xenomorph DNA in del Toro’s conception of the title creature, an invasive species of designer-imposter insect introduced into the city’s roach pollution by an entomologist (Mira Sorvino) trying to stop the spread of a virus that’s — you guessed it — killing kids. Three years later, the bug has outlived its supposed suicide gene and rapidly evolved to the size of a grizzly bear but with a special talent for imitating its natural predator. Namely, us.
Even this early on, del Toro had an eye for first-rate creature design. The monster of Mimic is a nifty delight — a towering, clicking masquerade artist that can close its carapace to approximate the rough outline of a human face and its wings to create the illusion of a tall man in a trench coat. (The reveal of its disguise is the film’s most memorable image, like a Mad Magazine fold-in of terror.) Unfortunately, the effects don’t always do the beast justice. Unlike Event Horizon, Mimic goes quite heavy on the CGI, and that’s aged badly over 25 years and counting.
Mimic very much fits the profile of a satisfying smart-dumb late-August movie.
At heart, the film is a preposterous Saturday night creepshow, updating the mid-century genre of radioactively enlarged bugs for a new era of monsters born from genetic modification and computer wizardry. Which is to say that, despite its flaws, Mimic very much fits the profile of a satisfying smart-dumb late-August movie, feeding an audience starved for cheap thrills and a lot of running, screaming, and expository dialogue (delivered by an above-average cast that includes Charles S. Dutton, F. Murray Abraham, and a young Josh Brolin). It also happens to have been made with a fair amount of flair, del Toro flexing his growing muscle behind the camera with quasi-biblical imagery and chiaroscuro lighting that gives Manhattan the doomy, gloomy atmosphere of Seven’s similarly rainy nowhere city.
Del Toro would, of course, bounce back from the underwhelming reception to Mimic, and the reportedly torturous experience of trying to make it under the bullying, controlling supervision of Harvey Weinstein. He’s now a revered geek visionary, with a resume heavy on both Oscar-winning fantasies (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) and comic-book pulp (Blade 2, the Hellboy films). Anderson, meanwhile, would tack in a different direction, devoting his career to geometrically inventive, less reputable video-game shlock like the Resident Evil films; he’s earned his own discerning fan base, made up of cinephiles capable of appreciating a good sense of style over substance. Interestingly, both men would indulge their Alien enthusiasm again — Del Toro through a menagerie of monsters distantly related to H.R. Giger’s, Anderson through a direct spinoff.
Does the unofficial double feature of Mimic and Event Horizon mark 1997 as the best year for the late-August thriller? The canon grows annually, with each summer bringing new favorites. This August, for example, has offered the vertigo-inducing Fall and the Idris Elba safari-gone-wrong survival thriller Beast — the kind of well-reviewed, modestly scaled, no-frills scare fare that gives August a good name. When it comes to studio horror, one person’s dump-month trash is another’s genre treasure.
Event Horizon is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services like Prime Video. Mimic is currently streaming on HBO Max. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.