For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Night of the Comet, directed by Tom Eberhardt, 1984
People all over the world find themselves in a fury of excitement this particular Christmas due to the approach of a mysterious comet. As you can imagine, LA is no exception and people take to the streets by the millions to observe the comet as it passes through our atmosphere. For sisters Regina and Samantha, the comet represents yet another drag they'd rather avoid. But when they wake the next day to find the entire population of L.A. (and presumably the world) reduced to calcium dust, they feel like someone permanently harshed their buzz. When faced with a post-apocalyptic future, what are two girls from the valley to do? Clearly, the answer is party!
I saw Night of the Comet about a year ago and I have to say I was not a fan. I found the first half charming but felt the last half-hour or so chased its own tail into a corner with no conceivable resolution. To be perfectly honest, I was not at all excited about seeing this film on the big screen just based on those preconceptions. I am completely willing to admit that I was wrong about Night of the Comet. Upon second viewing I found the film fun, witty, and strangely daring. I attribute this new-found love for Night of the Comet less to the Terror Tuesday crowd and more to my being forced to judge it analytically for the purpose of review.
Night of the Comet is one of a long line of 80's horror films to feature middle-class, suburban youth facing some supernatural threat; adults serving as ineffectual, secondary characters. The camp of these films to which everyone makes mention is inherent in the fact that they are applying classical horror/sci-fi memes to a youth culture that, more than ever before, had become so self-absorbed as to be ignorant of even the most realistic of threats, let alone those from another world. Apt examples of this brand of filmmaking would be Night of the Creeps, The Gate, The Lost Boys, Monster Squad, Fright Night, or The Wraith. Night of the Comet takes this concept to the extreme by nuking all the adults and definitively taking them out of the equation. The distinguishing characteristic of Night of the Comet therefore becomes a literal interpretation of the non-influence of adults in these movies, and the protagonists being about as shallow and self-absorbed as one can get; living just as much for shopping as they do for working to reorganize a decimated society.
That being said, I think the reason Night of the Comet works is that lead actresses Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney manage to be selfish and superficial without being vapid or irritating. Stewart may be a valley girl with shopping on the brain but she is also spunky and funny with a knack for gaining the high score on Tempest and killer right cross. Maroney is a spoiled brat but one who clearly loves her older sister and who spits the films most memorable one-liners with masterful skill. We should hate these two manifestations of 80's excess but they manage (through wonderful performance and perfect direction) to be far too likable to spurn. I think therein lies the true genius of Night of the Comet.
The biggest problem I originally had with Night of the Comet, to which I had previously alluded, was the rather clunky pacing. The first half of the film breezes briskly through its major plot points; never missing a beat. But about the time the two girls finish their "trying on clothes" montage, of which 80's films are so fond, the film reaches a point that had previously marked my loss of interest. This would be the point where the mutant stock boys take them hostage and they are then rescued by the crazy scientists from the underground bunker in the desert. The fact that the film experiences a tonal shift at this point is incontrovertible, but what I came to realize in my second viewing is how much I enjoy the changeover. I actually think the vibe in the second half is similar to that of John Carpenter's They Live in that we have a bunch of sunglasses-wearing, alien-looking weirdos and an us vs. them assimilation device. The shift is indicative of the characters being far more cognizant of the mayhem around them and thus is a natural progression of the story.
The entertainment value of this film can not be overstated. We have cheerleaders with Uzis, zombie children, and a teen-aged girl gets punched in the face by her stepmother. All the elements for the perfect camp 80's film are in place and firing on all cylinders. It's clear that while writer/director Thom Eberhardt understood 80's youth culture, he was still bold enough to employ comedic timing that elevates the material to something far more clever than routine, cheap teen fluff. Also, I defy you to not quote at least one of Night of the Comet's signature lines as you leave the theater; including the film's one and only F bomb that is given the perfect setup and execution so as to not at all be wasted.
I'm not sure why, but I had expected a much more packed house for this one. That being said, those who were in attendance found no shortage of things to love about this film. The one-liners fired at us were greeted with some of the loudest laughter I have as yet heard. This is the perfect movie for Terror Tuesday. Night of the Comet strikes the perfect balance of nostalgic camp and legitimate craft to satisfy discerning palates and drunken pleasure-seekers alike.