When I'm working hard, I can't watch a Bergman, Oliver Stone or Kurosawa movie. It takes too much effort, and it can be too much like work. I haven't been able to watch a Woody Allen movie in probably a decade. I don't do angst well when I'm overworked.
Night of the Comet, released in 1984, is a great example of that. The ability of the production team to create this classic “last people on earth” science fiction effort on a budget of $500,000-700,000 is in fact quite admirable.
By way of contrast, B movies are great when my brain is tired.
Interestingly, a good B movie can be entertaining for its creativity, as well as for an assumed level of mindlessness.
The premise of the film is highly tenuous, that a comet that last visited the earth at the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction 65 million years ago is now returning, and taking out life on the planet all over again. Of course, a tenuous premise is part of what makes a B movie interesting. Where can the director/writer go with this thin thread connecting the elements of the story?
Fortunately, the film’s writer and director (Thom Eberhardt) pulls off this feat quite successfully.
After the comet’s tail has basically turned almost all life on earth to calcium dust, Eberhardt captures the results in an imaginative low-budget fashion. Somewhat obviously, the highways of Los Angeles are deserted – in fact overly deserted, given that some people must have been driving the highway when the comet’s toxic tail swiped our planet. OK, we can suspend disbelief about that. (Mr. Eberhardt notoriously used his own Mercedes as one of the abandoned vehicles in the film.)
Then we witness a series of electronic timers setting off various bits of machinery that will operate for no one. And the sidewalks of the city are littered with piles of human clothing and reddish calcium dust. An inexpensive but potent way to portray the comet’s destructive impact.
As we would expect in a B-movie, there is no effort to explain why electrical power is flowing seamlessly, gasoline is available to operate vehicles driven by southern California's few survivors, houses are not burning due to stovetops being left on, natural gas leaks are not causing explosions, nuclear power plants are not melting down, etc. The planet, complex technological infrastructure and all, is eerily quiet, and strangely intact.
Let us disregard all of this, and maintain our brains in a state of deeply relaxed and narrowly focused alertness.
Eberhardt later acknowledged that he had no idea, as a young director, how many basic rules of movie-making he was breaking. He mixed the genres of science fiction, horror and comedy as with a blender. Like Joss Whedon, Eberhardt was interested in strong female characters, and he headed up the movie with two female leads and no primary male characters.
The leading characters, Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart, originally of Edmonton, Alberta) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney, originally of Minneapolis, Minnesota) are airy California valley girls who are surprisingly resourceful (it just so happens, for example, that their mostly absent Green Beret father took them to target practice, instructing them in the use of automatic weapons).
Primarily interested in video games and cheerleading practice at the outset, the two girls turn out to have more than what it takes to confront evil, save the imperilled (including each other as needed), and basically preserve life (and orderliness) on earth.
Siskel and Ebert loved the film, and this was a significant boon in the early days of its release. Night of the Comet double-billed with Schwarzenegger’s unexpected early blockbuster, The Terminator, at drive-ins that year, garnering the better reviews of the two films. However, the hoped-for blockbuster, 1984, had to be released before the year was out, and this caused Night of the Comet to get bumped early at many theatres, despite its grossing many multiples of its modest production cost.
Other reviewers have noted that the film captures a unique era in West Coast culture (big hair and shoulder pads), but Eberhardt was in fact capturing some very capable and imaginative acting on-screen as well. This is particularly commendable, given that the film was so low budget that essentially every foot of film that was shot ended up in the final release of the movie.
I note that the film is often grouped with “Zombie” films, but I think this is a serious error in categorization. In this film, the “zombies” are people with apparent partial exposure to the comet who are just desiccating more slowly than the majority, who were killed instantly. The zombies don't keep coming back, in fact, they are expiring rapidly with no intervention required by our heroes.
Most importantly, the film is not really about combat with the zombies at all. Nor is it about special effects. It is primarily a dialogue-based composition, and some of the dialogue is surprisingly intelligent, heartfelt, and/or clever.
Therefore, in my view, this is a classic low budget science fiction “what if” type of movie. In this case, a familiar theme, “last people on earth,” is played out with verve, irony and imagination.
As an interesting side note, the female co-lead, Kelli Maroney, has remained interested in and committed to the concept of doing further work based on the film. Trained originally at the esteemed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and then schooled in Shakespeare in New York City, Ms. Maroney’s film career took her unexpectedly in this direction – primarily through her roles in the present film, and earlier, in the classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Ms. Maroney originally sought to produce a sequel to Night of the Comet, but discovered that MGM were, at least at the time, uninterested in surrendering their franchise for the movie. Perhaps fortuitously, MGM finally got around to releasing the film in stripped-down DVD version only in the spring of this year, but fairly shortly after refusing Ms. Maroney’s request to option the rights to the original film.
Ms. Maroney has spoken openly about her love for this film, conducting interviews on many occasions over the intervening two decades, and often appearing at conventions for film buffs. Ms. Maroney acknowledges that she still keeps one of the two original cheerleading outfits in her closet, and announces proudly that it still fits her fine.
I honestly have no idea what could be done with a sequel to Night of the Comet, but it is a fun idea to play with. Hopefully, someday, somewhere, a fitting sequel might be produced. If so, let's be sure to keep the budget (and special effects) low, and the production and acting standards high, in which case, a sequel would be a nice fit with the very imaginative and entertaining original!
P.S. I must acknowledge that I have actually been minimizing how much I like this movie because of its (quite self-aware) B-movie categorization.
On reflection, a number of my lifetime favourite movies have been low-budget projects, and this perhaps because low budget movies make demands upon the imagination, rather than upon the sensory systems.
Among my all-time favourites are such works as "Happy Birthday Wanda June" (so low budget it is almost impossible to find), Alphaville (a classic Godard take on the low budget science fiction idea, much of it shot in "inter-galactic space" - in this case referring to the Ford Galaxy driven by the lead characters), Cherry 2000 (a movie about what kind of relationship you can and can't have with a robot) and Forbidden Planet (previously discussed on this site). I have also discussed "The Searchers" recently - profoundly politically incorrect by modern sensibilities, but again, more of a treat for the imagination than for the senses. So, what is wrong with the formula - low budget, big imagination?
In fact, the story-line of Night of the Comet is a highly imaginative twist on a classic science fiction theme. The dialogue is fresh. The minimal use of props and special effects maximizes the power of the imaginative dimension of the story (in such a way as a stage production might do). The heroines are blunt, lively, appealing and ultimately admirable. And, perhaps most importantly, the acting by virtually all of the characters is entirely creditable, with just the right dose of understatement or overstatement as required by each situation.
Granted, there is a liberal dose of improbability, silliness and occasional dramatic excess, but these condiments are offered unself-consciously. I don't think I'd be over-stating it to suggest that Night of the Comet is probably as good as any low budget movie can get. And that statement is made in recognition that low budget productions not uncommonly excel the quality of those made at many multiples of the cost of the shoestring effort.
There is something about the constraints of having next to no money that creates a "right attitude" in the production crew and cast of certain low budget films, and Night of the Comet has that (right) attitude in spades!