J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Viewing: Night of the Comet

The Sun and the Moon exert an influence over the Earth every day of the year, so there is no rational reason to fear the eclipse. However, after revisiting this awesome Eighties cult classic, the idea of gazing heavenwards with a large group of strangers feels like an invitation to bad karma. Skip the eclipse and find a steel-lined shed instead, to watch Thom Eberhardt’s influential end-of-the-world romp, Night of the Comet (trailer here).

As the in-a-word-style narrator points out in the prologue, a mysterious comet is about to pass Earth for the first time since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some find this fact significant, but most do not. Regina (“Reggie”) and Samantha Belmont haven’t given it much thought. They are more concerned with their own high school love affairs and drama with their unfaithful stepmother, Doris. Each skips the comet-watching, crashing in lead-lined rooms.

In Reggie’s case, she slept with her pseudo-boyfriend Larry Dupree, a bootlegging projectionist, who might have become another Tarantino if the world had survived to early 1990s indie boom. Unfortunately, Dupree lived through the comet, only to become the first victim of the zombie-like remnants. Eventually, they too will turn to dust, like the rest of the comet’s victims, but first they will kill whatever they can catch.

Alarmed by her own encounter with an infected non-zombie, Reggie makes her way home through the eerily empty, dust-strewn streets of Los Angeles, reuniting with her in-denial sister. They might look and sound like Valley Girls, but the Belmont sisters know how to take care of themselves, thanks to their Special Forces father. Hooking up with Hector, a long-haul trucker at a still broadcasting radio station (local, but alas, not so live), they decide to stock up on guns at the nearby armory and famously, do a bit of shopping. Unfortunately, the scientists who received their is-anybody-out-there message at the radio station do not necessarily have good intentions.

Comet might just be the greatest apocalyptic science fiction movie ever. Some might dismiss it as a sarcastic teen comedy, but its sly attitude arguably reflects something acutely human, especially during times of stress. Maybe they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but if the world really did end, you could do far worse than teaming up with the bickering Belmont sisters.

As Reggie Belmont, Catherine Mary Stewart became the movie-crush of every Eighties teen science fiction fan. Seriously, how could you not fall for a beautiful woman, who could fight and shoot guns, but preferred to spend her time playing video games? (Plus, she had already appeared in The Last Starfighter and would go on to co-star in Weekend at Bernies.) Stewart perfectly played off Kelli Maroney’s Samantha Belmont, who had most of the best lines and the cheerleader outfit, carrying off both quite well.

Robert Beltran nicely serves a grounding, stabilizing influence. Despite his years on Star Trek: Voyager, he probably gets more questions at conventions about portraying good old Hector. For extra cult movie cred, Mary Woronov plays the decent mad scientist and Geoffrey Lewis plays her evil boss.

There are not a lot of special effects in Comet, which is one of the reasons it is so gosh-darned cool. Instead, Eberhardt and his cast and crew filmed guerrilla-style on the deserted streets of LA one early Christmas morning. As a result, Comet feels more desolate than just about every doomsday movie that followed it. Whedon himself has cited the film’s influence on the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you can see its influence on scores of ironic midnight genre movies. Frankly, Eberhardt’s contributions to 1980s and early 1990s pop culture have been criminally under-recognized, considering he also helmed the Sherlock Holmes spoof, Without a Clue and the pilot episode of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.

Sure, the scientists’ subterranean base is pretty cheesy looking, but that is all part of the fun. All things considered, the film holds pretty well, especially when it comes to the energy and attitude of Stewart, Muroney, and Beltran. Just as highly recommended as ever, Night of the Comet is available on DVD and it screens September 5th at the Alamo Drafthouse Winchester.

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