Friday, August 31, 2012

Night of the Comet

Released in 1984, Thom Eberhardt’s film Night of the Comet took advantage of the valley girl phenomenon that tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in the early 1980s by making the two protagonists of his horror/science fiction hybrid materialistic mallrats. The film was part of a mini-trend during the decade that fused the teen film with science fiction as evident with the likes of My Science Project (1985) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Night of the Comet was a smart, funny and even, at times, scary ride that proved to be a modest box office hit. It has since gone on to develop a small but loyal cult following, anchored by the performances of the film’s two lead actresses, Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, who play the aforementioned valley girls.


The Earth passes through the tail of a rogue comet, one that may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs millions of years ago. Most people see this event as worthy of celebration and large crowds congregate all over the world to celebrate this rare event. We meet Regina “Reggie” Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart), a movie theater usher more interested in getting the high score on the Tempest video game than doing her job (“They throw things at me…”). She’s particularly irked that someone with the initials “DMK” got sixth place on a high score list that is otherwise dominated by her.

Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) is stuck at home dealing with her step-mother’s comet party. “Mom” (Sharon Farrell) is a real nasty piece of work, cheating on Sam’s dad and punching the young girl in the face after the teen slaps her during a heated argument. The next day, an eerie red haze blankets the sky and the city of Los Angeles is mysteriously devoid of life with only articles of discarded clothing sprinkled with little piles of red dust remaining.

Reggie wakes up in the projection booth having spent the night with Larry the projectionist (Michael Bowen). However, he’s quickly dispatched by a zombie when trying to leave the theater. She discovers the undead guy after getting locked out and narrowly escapes on a nearby motorcycle. This sequence is notable for demonstrating early on that Reggie is capable of taking care of herself as she fends off the zombie. She’s no damsel in distress and Catherine Mary Stewart doesn’t portray her as a bubble-headed teen either, but rather a resourceful young woman.

Reggie’s journey through the city is a slightly unsettling one as she drives by abandoned cars and clothes strewn all over the place with the red hazy sky omnipresent in every shot. Eberhardt inserts several eerily beautiful establishing shots of the deserted city bathed in a reddish hue. It’s disconcerting to see a bustling metropolis like L.A. so devoid of life. It’s as if someone dropped a reel of The Quiet Earth (1985) in the middle of Valley Girl (1983).

She returns home to find Sam who had spent the night hiding out in the backyard shed and is oblivious to what’s happened. They check out a local radio station that is still operating and meet Hector Gomez (Robert Beltran), a truck driver who survived a zombie attack. Our heroes eventually cross paths with members of a top secret government research facility located under the ground out in the desert. One of them (Mary Woronov) believes that they should stay isolated while another (Geoffrey Lewis) believes they should actively locate survivors.

Reggie gets instant cool points for not only being a skilled video game addict but also well-versed Superman lore as evident in the scene when Larry gets a reference wrong and she’s quick to correct him. This makes her a bonafide geek goddess to be worshipped. Reggie may have a tough exterior but Catherine Mary Stewart isn’t afraid to show her character’s vulnerable side in moments like the one where Reggie asks Hector not to go to San Diego but stay with her and Sam.

As the film progresses, Reggie and Sam are developed past their initial valley girl stereotypes. The two actresses have good chemistry together and are believable as sisters in the way they interact with each other, getting on the other’s nerves but always there for each other. They have a nice scene together where the siblings talk about Reggie’s romantic interest in Hector and Sam talks about a boy at school that she liked. It dawns on her that he and all her friends are probably dead. Sensing how upset her sister is, Reggie takes her mind off it with a spontaneous shopping spree delightfully scored to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper that echoes a similar scene in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) – materialistic joy after the end of the world.

Reggie and Sam are army brats, which is a nice way of explaining their fighting skills and familiarity with firearms, something that proves very helpful later on in a pretty tense action sequence that sees them attacked by a group of New Wave looters (including Repo Man’s Dick Rude and Platoon’s Chris Pedersen) in a department store. It’s a fun sequence that shows the deadlier side of consumerism as the ex-stock boys-turned-looters are miffed that Reggie and Sam are shoplifting, while their leader speaks in television slogan clich├ęs.

Robert Beltran is quite good as Stewart’s potential love interest. However, Hector’s character disappears midway through the film only to show up in the final reel just in time for the exciting climax, which feels a tad contrived. It’s nice to see Beltran reunited with his Eating Raoul (1982) co-star Mary Woronov. They continue their fantastic on-screen chemistry in a memorable scene together. Geoffrey Lewis brings his trademark gravitas to a supporting role as a scientist with his heart in the right place but this soon changes when his character undergoes a frightening transformation.

Writer/director Thom Eberhardt had grown up watching late 1950s and early 1960s science fiction and horror films, fascinated by the good as well as the bad ones. In particular, he was intrigued by “the empty-city movies where everybody in the city has just disappeared. As a kid I was fascinated by that notion that everybody in the world can be gone and you’re left there in the shell of the city.” He went on to write and direct documentaries for public television and “After School” specials. It was on one of the latter that he got the idea for Night of the Comet. While on the set of one of these specials, Eberhardt had a conversation with two teenage-girl actresses about the end of the world and they described to him how they envisioned it. This gave him the idea to make an end of the world film from the perspective of teenagers. “If you buy into that, then the film makes sense in a screwy sort of way,” he remarked in an interview

He wrote the screenplay for Night of the Comet at the same time as Sole Survivor, but the latter became his feature film debut in 1983 when he couldn’t get anyone interested in the former. The Comet script was an unconventional hybrid of several genres and interested parties either wanted to make a straight-out horror film or a comedy without any of the scary stuff. He finally sold it to Atlantic Releasing Corporation and they assigned producers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane, who had success previously with Valley Girl (1983), to the project.

After making The Last Starfighter (1984), Catherine Mary Stewart acquired a reputation for being something of a bankable actress and auditioned for Night of the Comet. While filming Fast Times and Ridgemont High (1982), Kelli Maroney auditioned for Comet. She later learned that A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp was a contender for the role of Samantha but the producers felt that she didn’t look good with an Uzi! Despite auditioning separately, Stewart and Maroney found that they had great chemistry together and hung out on and off the set.

Night of the Comet was shot entirely on location in Los Angeles for approximately $700,000. As a result, the production worked on a tight schedule of six weeks with four nights spent in an actual department store in the Sherman Oaks Galleria for the exciting gunfight between Reggie and Sam and the New Wave ex-stock boys. For the look of the film, in particular, the deserted city streets, Eberhardt and his director of photography Arthur Albert drew inspiration from the 1954 B-sci-fi film Target Earth. To get that look on a small budget, they shot the city from unusual angles and early Christmas morning. The film’s producers did not like Eberhardt’s working methods. They wanted him to make a serious horror film while he was more interested in a tongue-in-cheek tone. To appease them, Eberhardt shot two different versions of every scene – a serious take and a more humorous one. According to the director, the producers had a replacement lined up if the production company fired him: “Luckily, nobody had any money for reshoots, so they were stuck with what I gave them.”

Night of the Comet received positive reviews from both genre-friendly magazines and the few mainstream critics who saw it. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt it was “a good-natured, end-of- the-world B-movie,” by a “film maker whose sense of humor augments rather than upstages the mechanics of the melodrama.” Cinefantastique magazine’s David J. Hogan felt that “Comet’s greatest virtue, inarguably, is its treatment of Samantha and Regina. The girls are human, which means they are not merely amusing and pretty, but resourceful, occasionally petty, and capable of growth.” Yet-to-be legendary writer Neil Gaiman called it, “one of the most amusing, witty, imaginative, and thought-provoking films I’ve seen that was made with no budget and is also cheap exploitation.” Finally, the New Music Express’ Alex Pollak wrote, “maybe this movie is lightweight, but it’s still quite good.”

Night of the Comet’s legacy lives on as references to it can be found in films like 28 Days Later (2002), Planet Terror (2007) and the popular television show Lost. The film continues to enjoy a decent cult following with its stars Stewart and Maroney regulars on the convention circuit. It has become a memorable snapshot of the times in which it was made, playfully capitalizing on the hype that surrounded Halley’s Comet in 1984 and into 1985 as people anticipated the phenomenon of it being visible only every 75-76 years. In addition to being heavily steeped in the sci-fi genre, Night of the Comet trades pretty heavily in horror genre conventions, like Sam’s freaky nightmares where she’s attacked by undead motorcycle cops. The film also has something on its mind as its characters sift through the remnants of a consumer culture after the world ends. Like Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), Night of the Comet has a healthy mistrust of the government and scientists as the research group have less than noble goals and are far more dangerous than the random zombies our heroes encounter. Reggie and Sam don’t have any kind of political agenda or master plan, they just want to survive and there is something refreshing about that. Eberthardt crafted a clever horror/science fiction hybrid that deserves a place among other offbeat fare like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) that flew in the face of the conservative conventionality that dominated much of American cinema in the ‘80s.

NOTE: The production information in this article was sourced from THE definitive Night of the Comet website, located here.


SOURCES

Counts, Kyle. “Night of the Comet.” Cinefantastique. January 1985.


Everitt, David. “Night of the Comet.” Fangoria. December 1984.

6 comments:

  1. If this film thematically intersects with the likes of The Quiet Earth (1985), then I definitely want to see. I've always heard of the movie, but never once viewed it. Time to change that (says the Angeleno). Great look at this, J.D. Thanks.

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  2. Great piece! I work with Catherine on her Official facebook page where she is VERY involved. Feel free to check out www.facebook.com/catherinemarystewart

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  3. You get to work with Catherine Mary Stewart? What a lucky guy!

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  4. Cool review for this cheesy flick, I personally would have prefered that he'd gone full on sci-fi comedy, which I think they kind end up doing anyways. With your insights on the production, I can now understand why the tone of the film shifts from funny or silly, to serious and horrifying, they shot two versions of every scene, damn!

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  5. Haha, I love this movie! I wonder if it's still on netflix...

    Found you though Countdown to Halloween and am looking forward to being a fellow cryptkeeper this year!

    Feel free to visit me at my blog A Spooky Soiree http://spookysoiree.blogspot.com

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  6. Tom Ryan:

    Thank you! And thanks for posting a link to this review on her Facebook page. Much appreciated.


    The Film Connoisseur:

    I do like the funky hybrid of comedy/SF/horror. It works even though it probably shouldn't. In that respect, it reminds of genre mashup films like BUCKAROO BANZAI.


    luckyyjennyy:

    Thanks for stopping by.

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