November 17, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Night of the Comet (1984)

by Nick Schager

Night of the CometWhat's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Lars von Trier's planet-annihilating Melancholia, this week it's Thom Eberhardt's apocalyptic B-movie Night of the Comet.

Armageddon can't stop teen girls from shopping in Night of the Comet, an '80s relic that relishes dim-witted valley-girl attitude and rampant Reagan-era materialism. Thom Eberhardt's end-of-the-world comedy begins with the eagerly awaited appearance of a legendary comet—though not so legendary, it seems, to have an actual name. Revelers crowd Times Square, kids buy souvenir bouncy-comet headbands, and Cali suburbanites host street parties on the big night, a level of excitement not shared by sexy Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), who'd rather schtup the projectionist at the movie theater where she works, or her blonde cheerleading younger sister Sam (Kelli Maroney), who's too busy sparring with her slutty stepmom (Sharon Farrell). Eberhardt introduces Regina playing an arcade game, her eyes alight with erotic intensity, thereby foreshadowing the character's apparent fondness for violently eradicating outer space-y villains. Such real-world opportunities soon present themselves once Regina and Sam wake up to find that the comet has turned just about everyone to red dust, a should-be horrifying scenario that the girls respond to with blasé lack of self-preservation that's almost as ludicrous as the convenient fact that Regina's dad is a special forces badass who conveniently schooled her in the ways of submachine guns.

Night of the Comet

Regina and Sam have survived because they slept in steel-lined enclosures (Regina the projection booth, Sam a storage shed), while others have inexplicably been transformed into flesh-eating zombies. That the comet has affected individuals differently is mystifying, but no more ridiculous than Regina and Sam's pathological refusal to think about stockpiling food, water or ammunition (in fact, they waste countless shells on target practice, despite their expert gun skills). Faced with sobering circumstances, the girls prove primarily interested in flirting with hunky Hector (Robert Beltran) and, when depression sets in about the annihilation of their friends, a stroll through a shopping mall described as "an absolute monument to consumerism." That spree leads them to a showdown with some crazed stock boys who strike up a firefight for no good reason except, perhaps, as a means of objecting to the embarrassingly giddy shopping-and-dancing montage that Eberhardt sets to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." That egregiously cheesy sequence is in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings, which go out of their way to make sure that Regina and Sam are at once likeably cute and moronic caricatures, prone to blathering on about this new "freaked-out world" and, in Sam's case, opining that Hector's refusal to hit on Regina means that "the last man on Earth is either a gentleman or a fag."

Night of the Comet

The radio station in which Regina and Sam initially take shelter is a thing of laughable '80s monstrousness decorated with neon light strips and snake-like leather couches and recliners, a goofy set that's completely at odds with Eberhardt's evocative shots of silent, empty downtown L.A. streets shrouded by a blood-red sky. Those images, in which abandoned cars and clumps of clothes and shoes are illuminated in ominous crimson, presage similar ones from 28 Days Later, and establish an unsettling mood that the material then squanders in favor of like-oh-my-gawd silliness in which Sam worries more about Regina shacking up with Hector (she steals all the cute boys!) than their more immediate, dire Omega Man situation. That tunnel-vision idiocy is, of course, part of Eberhardt's joke, but Night of the Comet often delivers its central irony—namely, that the fate of humanity rests in the hands of two totally-radical nitwits—with an obviousness that negates some of its humor, and an above-it-all perspective that flirts with condescension, even as its cornucopia of cornball '80s soundtrack tunes unabashedly celebrate its protagonists' shallowness.

Night of the Comet

Regina and Sam are eventually targeted by a group of lab rats led by Dr. Carter (the great Geoffrey Lewis), who've survived the comet holocaust by living in an underground bunker where it turns out they're—spoiler alert!—harvesting people for blood to use for a potential cure. These scientific vampires are a hokey bunch easily felled by a computer keyboard conk to the head, though Eberhardt wrings decent comedy out of two physicians' attempts to trick a young boy and girl into inhaling noxious gases by telling them that, if they do it, they can live with Santa Claus forever. Night of the Comet posits eggheads as dangerous and intelligence as a bad thing—at one point, Sam tells a good doctor (Mary Woronov) that the "geniuses" at her school were "all wimps!"—while cinematographically drooling over bimbo Sam as she chews gum while decked out in a cheerleader uniform, negligees, or bra and panties. That idiots-are-awesome viewpoint aligns Eberhardt's film with its spiritual offspring Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Nonetheless, that later film has nothing on Night of the Comet's semi-satiric evocation of narcissistic '80s excess, which peaks with a happily-ever-after, nuclear-family finale featuring Regina wearing a floral-printed, shoulder-padded triangular pink dress of truly apocalyptic hideousness.

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Posted by ahillis at November 17, 2011 2:27 PM