[19 November 2013]
What if the world is inherited not by the meek, but by a pair of gum-snapping, big-haired Valley Girls? Night of the Comet, a low-budget surprise hit from 1984, takes that premise and joy-rides with it through the deserted streets of L.A.
The same comet that visited Earth shortly before the dinosaurs disappeared has returned, and the world prepares to watch what promises to be a spectacular light show. What no one outside a select few knows is that unless you’re protected by a layer of steel, exposure to the comet is deadly. Two sisters from the Valley—one hiding out from their stepmother in a back-yard shed, the other holed up in a projection booth—wake up to find the rest of L.A.’s inhabitants either reduced to a fine red dust, or transformed into zombies.
When Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her boyfriend spend the night in the movie theater where they both work, it’s as if they will into existence a plot derived from riffs on the movies whose posters fill the theater. Valley Girl and dystopian black comedy Death Race 2000 hang in the lobby. Red Dust, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, covers the inside of the alley door. Marlon Brando films On the Waterfront and The Wild One hang in the booth. The theater itself is showing It Came from Outer Space.
Valley Girl: check. But Night of the Comet puts a twist on Brando: Reggie is the wild one—racing around L.A. on a motorcycle—not fellow survivor Hector, played by Robert Beltran, who explains in his interview that he only accepted the role after insisting that his character not be scripted as a “cholo”. Little sister Sam (Kelley Maroney) can also hold her own with the boys: both girls have martial arts and small arms training, thanks to their special ops father. “Daddy would have gotten us Uzis,” Sam says after her MAC-10 machine gun jams during a target-shooting exercise.
Death Race nails the film’s mix of humor and drama (and also features Mary Woronov, Beltran’s costar in Eating Raoul, who plays one of the government team pursuing Sam and Reggie in Comet).
The reference to Hollywood classic Red Dust is of course played for laughs, but also draws attention to Maroney’s performance. In a new interview for the combo set, the actress explains that director Thom Eberhardt asked her to watch William Powell and Carole Lombard’s 1936 screw-ball comedy My Man Godrey to find inspiration in Lombard’s character, a sister trying to escape the influence of a controlling older sibling.
“The characters that drove the script were female, which is kind of unusual”, says Stewart in her new interview, and that perspective also drives the film’s humor, in scenes like this one:
Interviewer—“Are you pregnant?”
Reggie—“Nope. Thought I was once, though.”
Interviewer—“That’s not important.”
Reggie—“That’s what you think. That was the longest three weeks of my life.”
Night of the Comet also plays with L.A.’s addiction to consumption. “The whole area’s an absolute monument to consumerism,” says one of the scientists searching downtown for the sisters, who have gone shopping. Shots of the girls trying on dresses and shoes recall an earlier sequence, in which we see piles of clothes and personal accessories filled with dust.
“Here’s Doris!” shouts Reggie to incredulous Sam, while holding her stepmother’s dress. “Here’s Chuck,” she adds, emptying the red powder from a white loafer. It’s metonymy on an epic scale—hundreds of thousands of people reduced to their fashion choices—and a dig at the superficiality of Valley culture.
Reggie and Sam’s shopping spree reflects the same values, but also has a manic quality that places it in a continuum of limits-testing that ends with the two voluntarily instigating rules for themselves in a new world where anything is possible because nothing is forbidden.
Capturing Sam and Reggie’s development raises the film above humor and parody. So does the sobering depiction of material culture. A montage sequence from the day after the comet—one of the film’s best moments—shows the now-empty city’s mechanisms coming to life. A timer switches on an animatronic figure advertising a car repair shop. A pool vacuum begins to move through the water. A sprinkler system starts up.
When Reggie and Sam go to the local radio station in search of the DJ they hear on the air, they are surprised that the studio is empty, and a series of tape reels is simulating the live broadcast. These examples are the vestiges of a way of life marked by inauthenticity and self-indulgence, but the incongruity of the familiar time-saving devices that define modernity and the end of life as we know it freights them with sadness.
“It’s ironic: of all the great minds of the world, of all the great intellects, who should survive ...?” says one of the scientists (John Achorn) about the girls. The joke’s on him. Sam and Reggie’s skills make them much more adaptable to a future that values spontaneity and spunk over brains and bookishness.
An interview with Special Make-up Effects Creator David B. Miller, who got the job on the strength of his makeup for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, rounds out the extras.