Please Don't Be Sad, Sam Neill

by Arthur B

Possession and Event Horizon raise concerns about Sam Neill's coping strategies.
If there's one thing which the horror career of Sam Neill has regularly taught us, it's that the man just isn't equipped to deal with divorce, bereavement, and other relationship setbacks. It seems that whenever one of his fictional marriages unravel, things run out of control, he can't keep hold of his emotions, people end up dying and the gates of hell get busted wide open.

Well, I've learned a few things myself in my time about the rusty, blood-soaked bear traps that litter the path of romance. The bad news is that you can never fully comprehend and encompass the sheer complexity of the human heart, which means that you can never truly know whether your partner's love is genuinely enduring or whether it will vanish forever tomorrow, like a pattern in a kaleidoscope that vanishes after a turn. The good news is that you can never fully comprehend and encompass the sheer complexity of the human heart, which means that you should never underestimate your capability to heal and recover from a traumatic breakup. (The other bad news is that the hacksaw is only strong enough to cut through your flesh and bone, but not the aforementioned bear traps themselves. I don't know where you go to buy hacksaws of that Very Specific Level of Strength, but frankly I think just offering them for sale is giving people ideas.)

I feel bad for Neill, and for everyone else struggling with these issues, so in reviewing these movies I decided to see what useful tips for divorcees I can tease out from their stories. As it turns out, the answer is "a lot" - Sam Neill is really awful at dealing with the end of relationships.


Andrzej Żuławski's only English-language film is one of those which might have ended up on the infamous "video nasty" list purely on the basis of someone skimming a plot synopsis. Tonally speaking, it's miles away from the crass and exploitative material that usually got onto the list, and whilst there is a certain amount of blood involved in the gore stakes it's nowhere near as explicit as, say, your average Fulci zombie flick. It is mostly built on Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani being Very Emotive at each other.

Things begin with the horrendously awkward reunion of Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill), who make their home in West Berlin. Mark's been away on a work commitment, but you can tell from the couple's body language that there is absolutely no joy in this homecoming for either of them. Anna isn't even sure she wants Mark to come back to the flat with her, but having told their son Bob (Michael Hogben) that daddy's coming home she doesn't feel like she can disappoint the boy. It's quite evident from their conversation - and, most particularly, the sheer, stiff awkwardness between them - that their marriage is on the rocks, and this is as obvious to them as it is to the audience, but Mark desperately wants the marriage to survive despite the fact that both of their feelings have changed.

(ProTip: If you can't have a simple conversation with your other half without feeling tense and awkward, your marriage is done. Neill and Adjani do a fantastic job of getting across the stilted, weird sensation of being in a marriage that doesn't actually work here, and the best thing Mark could have done for all concerned is turn around and get back in the taxi that delivers him to the first scene and go away again.)

This opening keeps us at a distance from the couple, just as they are at a distance from each other. Based on a scene in which Mark has a mysterious conversation with his superiors, it feels as though there is some sort of mysterious espionage component to his work - aside from the weird questions they ask of him, there's the fact he's paid in fat stacks of cash - but it's hard to pin down the nature of this job beyond the fact that it involves maintaining contacts with individuals of interest, might have something to do with Mark's habit of staring out of the apartment window at the Berlin Wall whilst timing something, and seems to have some connection with the West German authorities considering the contexts in which Mark's employers show up later on. We have no idea what Anna has been filling her time with in Mark's absence at all, and between that and the way the film primarily follows Mark, this means we end up seeing events unfold from Mark's point of view - but as we will see, this is not the same thing as necessarily sympathising with him or taking his side.

So, matters progress. Mark uncovers lies and lies of omission on Anna's part, and after a tense discussion in Cafe Einstein which culminates in him absolutely losing his temper at her he decides to make a clean break of it. This leads to him spending the next few weeks drowning his sorrows in a hotel room, so miserable that he cannot even form sentences on the phone, thrashing about like a less restrained and sober version of Michael Sheen in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now and eventually resembling Iggy Pop from the cover of The Idiot. So far, this is all a perfectly sensible reaction to the situation.

(ProTip: Get as much distance as you possibly can. Ideally, disconnect completely - it'll make the whole process much less messy.)

Unfortunately for Mark, he doesn't quite have the option of disconnecting completely. Although he initially declared that he didn't want custody of Bob, when he pops by the department he discovers Bob smeared with mess and distressingly skinny, as though Anna hasn't lifted a finger to take care of the lad. Feeling a fatherly responsibility to make sure that Bob doesn't die of neglect, Mark moves back into the apartment and attempts to push his way back into Anna's life, but it doesn't stick and Anna ends up moving out - but where? Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), the beautifully sleazy free love creep she'd been carrying on an affair with, hasn't seen her either, and Mark decides to hire a private detective to work out exactly where she's spending all her time.

(ProTip: Don't try to get back together with your ex: it never lasts and it just pointlessly raises the stakes.)

As Mark begins to find comfort in befriending Bob's schoolteacher Helen - who mysteriously looks exactly like Anna, except she wears her differently and has these unusual green eyes - the detective (Carl Duering) tracks Anna down to a grimy apartment where Anna has been making her own fun - and by "making her own fun" I mean "creating a slimy, mutant, tentacular creature that she fucks with such vigour and enthusiasm that she completely exhausts the poor beast, leaving her to do all the killing to protect their bizarre relationship herself". Unable to leave the situation alone, Mark ends up getting his own hands dirty for the sake of keeping these terrible secrets, but as the violence needed to contain the coverup spirals out of control the duo are consumed by this inferno of their own making. Will it be Bob or the creature who ends up as their legacy?

(ProTip: Never indulge any shred of curiosity you have about your ex's life. Whether the news is good or bad, you don't want to hear it.)

Available in an uncut 2 hour and a bit version and a massively abridged American cut, I would definitely recommend that Possession be watched in its full version. (A UK Blu-Ray is now available thanks to the film's emergence from the video nasty list.) The American cut is sufficiently inept that it renders even the parts of the film that are supposed to make sense utterly incoherent, and in particular hacks out the relationship drama which the rest of the film requires for context. Ultimately, the nature of the story demands that it be an emotional ordeal, with Neill and Adjani acting their little hearts out and tugging on every emotional lever the audience possesses.

The script supports this brilliantly, with sequences that I have seen other reviewers deriding as over-the-top or ridiculous actually ringing true. Mark's desperation to get some sort of coherent, reasonable explanation for Anna's mysterious behaviour, and Anna's inability to declare what's going on inside her head directly, ring so true that I feel like I have lived portions of the film - though thankfully none of the violent bits.

The other important thing the script does is that it's much less partisan than you might expect it to be. Yes, Anna has all these mysteries going on in her life, and we follow Mark much more closely than her, and that all prompts us to see things through his eyes at first, but I would argue that this is necessary for any attempt to depict the downfall of a marriage from the inside. If the film presented an objective view of things that gave equal weight and understanding to each party, it wouldn't capture the necessarily skewed view of a divorce each participant possesses when they emerge from the wreckage. (Hell, for that matter when was the last time any of your friends or acquaintances had a breakup where you felt you had an equally good understanding of how it went down from the point of view of both parties?)

(ProTip: Don't mistake your side of the story for the truth. It's almost certainly going to be biased and unfair, and trying to convince the whole world of it makes you look like that dork who started GamerGate by publicly venting about Zoe Quinn. Venting is healthy, but save it for confiding to friends in private.)

Żuławski avoids being partisan by virtue of making sure that, whilst we spend more time with Mark, we never absolutely take his side. Both Anna and Mark are emotional tinderboxes ready to explode, and frequently each of their outbursts provokes something similar from the other. Anna makes a fumbling suicide attempt; as soon as he's bandaged her up, Mark takes up the electric meat cutter she used and starts self-harming with it. Mark and Anna both end up committing brutal murders for the sake of keeping the creature secret and keeping Anna out of trouble. Not everything they do has an exact equivalent in the other's behaviour - Mark does get violent with Anna in a way which she never quite does with him - but what parallels do exist aren't meant to imply that the two characters are absolute equivalents so much as to establish that neither should be taken as having the moral high ground, or possessing a clear and objective understanding of what is going on, or otherwise having some sort of privileged position where their side of the story somehow has more legitimacy than the other partner's..

(ProTip: Don't try to keep score, because it might end up being a draw.)

Indeed, in several cases the duo are shown as having faults that are differing but somehow connected. Helen and the creature, for instance, seem to be thematically similar in the sense of being substitute partners - the film's finale sets the two next to each other to make sure we don't miss the connection, and you can spot a link even earlier if you notice that when Heinrich meets the creature it, like Helen, happens to have green eyes. Whilst Anna's dream love is messy to the extreme, it's at least an honest expression of her desires; on the other hand, Helen is a sanitised, saintly, sexless Stepford Wife. Which is stranger: wanting a perfect dream woman to be your smiling housemaid who never questions you and is willing to sleep with you even after you've declared yourself at war with all women and specifically doesn't have any sexual demands or desires of her own, or wanting a greased-up man with tentacles to sensuously poke and cuddle you to your complete satisfaction?

In a home movie apparently shot by Heinrich and sent to Mark, Anna declares herself "the maker of her own evil" - certainly, a sequence in which she reduces a ballet student receiving her instruction to an emotional wreck through a weird, abusive interaction in class in the same home movie suggests that Anna certainly has evil to spare - and the same is evidently true of Mark. (How can him sending Heinrich to Anna's hideout - when he has inferred by this point that bad things happen to people who go there - represent anything other than a deliberate, calculated act of evil? What good could he possibly have expected to come of it?)

(ProTip: Beware of rebound relationships. You may find yourself with someone totally inappropriate just because you've been overreacting to the perceived flaws in your previous relationship.)

Lots of words have been spilled on a central scene in which Anna recalls having some sort of episode in a subway - uncontrolled, violent laughter turning into thrashing around and screaming, turning into a howls of agony as she bleeds from all orifices and miscarries… something. A few have noted now she specifically ties this in to her view of the universe as being based on either Faith or Chance - and that with her Faith miscarried she has to protect what is left of it lest she accept a universe of Chance - but so far as I can make out few have noted the context of the fit, which so far as I can tell appears to come after she has been standing praying in church like a tiny creature whimpering at Christ's feet for… something. (Nor have they noted that her statements here about Faith and Chance seem to be continuing a monologue she'd addressed to Heinrich in the home movie - if it was Heinrich who filmed it - which tie into her making her own evil.)

It's certainly a significant scene, and an alarming and difficult one to watch, but at the same time I think it's a mistake to isolate it or any other scene in the movie too much. A lot of what happens in the movie seems on a first watch to be similarly disconnected from everything else, but this is the error the American editors made - in fact, everything has something to do with everything else and there are few ingredients of the film which are entirely without precedent elsewhere in the maze.

(ProTip: Don't ascribe too much importance to any one incident. Unless something truly beyond the pale has happened, like a violent altercation, committed relationships tend not to break down because of one specific incident.)

Although the heart of the film is based around Neill and Adjani's performances, there's plenty more to praise. Bennent as Heinrich is glorious as Mark's love rival - a grand hypocrite who claims that nobody has the right to impose their will on anyone else as he engages with gropey, inappropriate touching with just about everyone he meets. Heinrich claims he accepts people as they are, but he only does so only to the extent that he's getting the attention he wants out of them, and he both flirts with and fights Mark on their first meeting and sees Anna as conquered territory to be touched up whenever he feels like it. It says a lot about the tone of Possession - and the amazingly slimy performance on Bennent's part - that Heinrich ending up dead face-first in a vomit-filled toilet probably qualifies as one of the more feel-good moments.

The other star of the film is Wall-era Berlin itself, of course, and a brilliant job has been done picking out locations for filming. I particularly like how Mark and Anna's apartment feels clean and hygienic and modern but at the same time chokingly claustrophobic, whilst Anna's love nest is dilapidated and filthy and ancient and has her Shoggoth sex slave lurking about in it but at the same time feels amazingly open and spacious. (Never underestimate the value of high ceilings.) Between the apocalyptic ending, Mark's espionage job, the location of both the marital apartment and Anna's hideout next to the Berlin Wall, and a host of other odd details like Mark turning a kitchen light on and off during a phone conversation like some sort of secret message being sent, there's a Cold War undercurrent to the film which is, of course, deeply appropriate to the marital breakdown theme, any divorce of note effectively being a clash between two superpowers setting their spheres of influence against each other.

The title of the movie is particularly interesting; who or what is possessed, and who or what is the possessor? Mark and Heinrich both speak about Anna in possessive terms, but the events of the film renders both claims absurd. Anna isn't under control of the creature either, at least at first - if anything, when she smugly declares that it's exhausted because they'd been fucking all night whilst it pathetically wilts on the bed like a sad sausage it feels like she's been abusing it rather than it exerting any power over her.

The final form of the creature, though, when it becomes a fully self-realised individual that can pass unnoticed amongst human beings rather than a tentacled fuckpuppet - that's a different story. As soon as it turns up, it seems to inspire a particular destructive instinct in individuals; Anna shoots herself and Mark from an angle which looks deeply unnatural, almost as if some invisible force were forcing her hand, a random bystander is hypnotised into letting the creature escape (and implicate herself in the process), Bob spontaneously jumps into the bath and instantaneously dies when the entity tries to pop by for dinner, and World War III breaks out. (A prelude to this seems to come with the death of Heinrich's mother (Johanna Hofer), who seems to spontaneously will her own death much as Bob does.) So, in the end effectively we all get possessed and the world ends because Sam Neill can't handle divorce and rejection and Isabelle Adjani neglected her son and overindulged her Shoggoth. Still, maybe Mark can take some comfort that something of him seems to live on in the mature creature...

(ProTip: When it is all over, you will be a whole new person. You'll bestride the Earth like a colossus, you'll crush your enemies underfoot, you'll be stronger and more powerful than you ever imagined you could be, bullets won't hit you and the world will be yours to destroy at a whim. The downside is that you won't recognise the person you used to be, and the person you used to be won't recognise you, so who's to say you actually survived instead of undergoing a sort of psychological inner death and rebirth?)

Also, if the forces of Faith and Chance would like to give me my three-week hotel bender as owed to all abandoned parties in broken marriages, please get in touch and I'll see about getting leave from work.

Event Horizon

This time around, Sam Neill is Dr William Weir, the genius designer of the experimental research starship Event Horizon that disappears on its maiden voyage in 2040. 7 years later, the Horizon is discovered again - abandoned, but in surprisingly good shape, and orbiting Neptune like some far-future Marie Celeste. The USAC - some sort of Anglo-American space corps-type institution - wants the ship back, and the men and women for the job are the crew of the Lewis and Clark, a crack search and rescue ship.

Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) isn't thrilled about having Weir onboard as a civilian advisor - after all, isn't this a routine search and rescue mission? - but the point of Weir's inclusion soon becomes apparent when he reveals that the Event Horizon was no ordinary ship: it carried an experimental system which was supposed to be able to open up a passage through hyperspace to allow travel between star systems at faster than the speed of light - allowing human space expansion to extend beyond our Solar System. With the abrupt disappearance of the Event Horizon coinciding with the first test of the drive, obviously it's of high importance to find out just what happened in that first test.

Ah, but there's some things which Weir hasn't told the crew - and other things he himself isn't even aware of. Weir isn't just haunted by the loss of the ship - he's also deep in grief over the loss of his wife Claire (Holley Chant), and whilst in stasis to undergo the physiologically unbearable accelerations involved in the trip to Neptune he dreams of an eyeless Claire lurking on the Event Horizon.

(ProTip: It's normal to have nightmares about still being together with your ex. I'd personally take it as a sign that you're getting over her and beginning to realise how bad the relationship was for you, though, rather than as a prompt to go find her and see how she is doing. Particularly if she is dead.)

Other people - dead and alive - that crew members believe themselves to have failed somehow start manifesting to them, and eventually the hole in Weir's hyperspace theory becomes brutally apparent: hyperspace is not, in fact, a neutral space, but instead is more or less the same thing as the Warp from Warhammer 40,000 - a malevolent hell-dimension in which lost souls are tormented eternity for the jollies of thirsting gods. (Warhams fans may have guessed this already based on the aesthetics of the hyperdrive itself, which seems to be on loan from the Chaos Space Marines.) When crewmember Justin (the amazingly named Jack Noseworthy) is exposed to the otherworld during their initial explorations of the ship, and the resultant gravity wave overloads the Lewis and Clark's systems to an extent that they all have to evacuate to the Event Horizon it's only the start of the crew's troubles…

(ProTip: That point about not getting back together with your ex if she is dead goes double if she is dead and in Hell. Invitations to "Be with me… forever!" should be scrutinised: are you really sure they've changed?)

Effectively a haunted house in space, the Event Horizon itself is magnificently realised as a setting. The physical sets (with CGI embellishments artfully included) sets up an interesting dichotomy between the main sections of the ship, which are a believable state-of-the-art extrapolation of the aesthetic of other bits of spacefaring tech we see like the space station Neill starts the film in and the Lewis and Clark, and the hyperdrive itself, which looks more like something you'd find in Sauron's basement than a technological prototype. This ties in neatly with the question of just how much Dr. Weir knows and what his agenda is at any particular point in the film. Whilst he probably isn't consciously aware of the Hell-dimension's true nature at the beginning of proceedings, the combination of his blunt refusal to believe that any problems are the result of the drive and the reverence with which he regards it seems to go a couple of steps beyond mere professional pride in his work, and he succumbs to the temptations of the ship far more easily than anyone else - naturally, making things even worse for the rest of the crew.

(ProTip: Don't drag your friends into your relationship drama. By all means go to them for support and to have someone to vent to, but making them an active part of the conflict is not fair on them and unlikely to make things any better.)

The external environment is also nicely realised. The depiction of Neptune as this dark, dull cousin to the more colourful gas giants, out there at the rim of the Solar System where the Sun appears as nothing more than a particularly bright star, is a great way to both keep the action happening in eternal night and emphasise just how isolated the crew are. This is a combination of actual scientific details (Neptune really is crazy-remote) and artistic licence (it's a happier shade of blue than seen here) which is characteristic of the film - for instance, in one scene where Justin ends up going outside an airlock without a spacesuit, the fact that he immediately starts bleeding from all orifices is an exaggeration but the way he actually has about ten or so seconds to react to being in the awful vacuum of space is accurate.

The key to making any SF story focusing on a spaceship crew - particularly one of the modest scale of the Lewis and Clark gang - is to establish the characters quickly, have distinctive chemistry between them, and make the viewer want to see their adventures. In this case, like with Prometheus, Event Horizon succeeds at making me want to see the starship's crews adventures before they got decimated on this ridiculous suicide mission. Even if a lot of the crew consist of character actors playing their usual characters (Sean Pertwee as Pilot Smith, for instance), for the most part they're characters I enjoy seeing anyway (though Richard T. Jones doing the "poor man's Eddie Murphy" comic relief deal I'm not sure about).

(ProTip: Value your friends, spend time maintaining those relationships, and listen to their advice. They'll help keep you connected with the real world, rather than daydreaming about impossible reconciliations that can never happen.)

Apparently about 30 minutes were cut from the film after test screenings found audiences would prefer the gore and the violence toned down, and as fond as I am of both of those things in this case I think it ends up making sense. The end result is still a film which is unafraid to show us shocking things, but the rapid cuts and blurry edits to material like the footage from the original trip (which shows the crew of the Event Horizon engaging in a literal orgy of violence and cannibalism and vomiting up of their own guts and generally acting like characters in a Fulci film). To be honest, I'm not entirely sure where those 30 minutes would have gone, unless they were involved in a substantially more detailed version of the original crew's logs showing their full decline from happy pals to nude gut-munching murderfiends, and in expanding most of the gore shots we get of conditions of hell from the very brief snippets we get when Weir is showing Miller what Hell is like (though the nearly-subliminal images are actually vastly more effective that way).

On the whole, Paul W.S. Anderson seems to have used his experience in making Event Horizon to inform the production of the Resident Evil movies. I actually think it's a better film than them - it's more original, the plot doesn't end abruptly for the sake of setting up yet another sequel, and the acting is better. Then again, Anderson and Mila Jovovich seem to have fun raking in the dollars with each sequel, so I can't blame them for concentrating on that.

(ProTip: Be open to moving on and leaving it all behind. Your life might not end up where you expected it to be before your breakup, but you might find you enjoy it better. And it might involve Mila Jovovich too.)

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Comments (go to latest)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:14 on 2014-10-27
Isn't Solaris an influence as well? At least in the way that copies of people significant to the crew start appearing and Neill's wife had committed suicide. As well as that whole research base/ship being under the influence by an alien, incomprehensible thing.

The relationship advice seems spot on, though.
Arthur B at 12:31 on 2014-10-27
It's definitely doing the Solaris thing, though with more fire and blood and explosions.

I look forward to Paul W.S. Anderson doing some sort of riff on Stalker, in which the Zone turns out to be a portal to Hell and the room which grants wishes is a direct line to Satan himself.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 20:33 on 2014-10-28
It would be sweet, if he could combine it with super long and quiets takes, which would descend into satanistic cannibalist shenanigans at a moments notice. Featuring Sam Neill hopefully?
Arthur B at 18:58 on 2014-12-07
This is displaying some epic esprit d'escalier, but I've just realised you could make a case that Resident Evil was, in fact, Paul Anderson's take on Stalker.
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