THE WORLD NEEDS SAM BELMONT: AN AFTERNOON WITH KELLI MARONEY
Though the world has been happy to hop aboard the 80s nostalgia train in recent years, it’s easy to forget that it was an era of tremendous self-effacement and produced media that’s questionable at best through contemporary eyes. Robocop and Wall Street were, after all, scathing indictments of the age, condemning the world of the 1980s as readily as the world at large (and Jimmy Carter) condemned the malaise and nihilism of the 1970s. Too, while The Breakfast Club, Lucas, and myriad other coming-of-age dramas may have seemed revolutionary for their time, no modern day reassessment is complete without a look at how poorly some of the social-Darwinism moral underpinnings have aged, if they were ever healthy to begin with (change yourself to fit society’s expectations; nerds should stick to their own kind; etc). Yet at the same time, it’s true that there was a magical ambiance to the 80s, a je ne sai quois that’s made it the subject of a rampant ephemerama since at least the mid-90s. What was so good and pure about the decade that we keep going back to that well?
Night of the Comet and Chopping Mall may have had low-key theater runs—debuting just in time for Thanksgiving, 1984, Comet grossed $14 million before disappearing from theaters; Chopping Mall did a bit less— but they did not go quietly into the neon-lit night. Finding a second life on cable, local access, and VHS, the films steadily accumulated a cult following through the remainder of the 1980s and into the early 90s. Here were a pair of movies that perfectly encapsulated the lighter-hearted zeitgeist of the era: a gleefully phantasmagoric sense of abandon in everything from the outrageous clothes to the synth music to the totally cracked plots (to use the film’s original titles: teenage mutant comet zombies and kill-bots). Here was the 80s we loved. Free of any questionable moral underpinnings, completely unconcerned with the pressing social concerns of the day, they were a pair of films that aged well because they were of the era while not being tethered to it. They’re very special films for that reason, and, as a result, it places Kelli Maroney in a very unique position.
As the emotional center at the heart of both Mall and Comet, Maroney is a sort of cult-movie distillation of every girl in the John Hughes canon (and if there’s any doubt to her 80s cred—she was also the cheerleader in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Case closed). With all the vulnerability of Molly Ringwold and all the acerbic disaffection of Ally Sheedy, Maroney stands as perhaps a more positive artifact of 1980s teenage femininity than any of her contemporaries. While girls in other films moped, worried over boys, and obsessed over trivial matters, Maroney’s characters moped, worried over boys, obsessed over trivial matters, then up and did something about it. Putting a face on girl power before the Spice Girls could give it a name, her characters were proactive about their lives, bodies, and fates in ways that other 80s cinematic teens could only dream about. Move over, Andie Walsh—Samantha Belmont would’ve picked Ducky AND Blane, and kicked them both to the curb if either of them had a problem with it. (And, forgive me, Catherine Mary Stewart, I still adore Reggie. We all wanted to BE Reggie; but we all knew we WERE Sam).
It's owing to the films’ surreal subject matters that they didn’t become the 90s touchstones their contemporaries did—all other matters aside, chatty teens in a library are more accessible than uzi-wielding teens at the mall—but it would seem that’s slowly changing. By popular demand, both films have received Blu-Ray restorations (Chopping Mall just this year), and with the advent of such broad-appeal shows as Stranger Things and The Walking Dead, middle America is much more ready to embrace cultic pop culture as their own. Hopefully, with the films’ resurrection, Maroney herself will get a second look—and maybe a second-coming, the way that many of her contemporaries have.
For the good news is that Ms. Maroney is still alive, with us and kicking, and ready for a well-deserved comeback. It was my absolute pleasure to speak to her recently, and every Mall and Comet fan will be delighted to know that the years haven’t dulled her enthusiasm or her charisma. Please welcome her to CineDump to discuss the makings of a pair of unlikely classics, the return of the 80s, and, hopefully, one of the last interviews she does before her fantastic return to genre cinema. Horror filmmakers, Netflix producers, and basic-cable kingmakers, please take note: The world may not need Rick Grimes, but it sure as hell could use Samantha Belmont.
PF: So why do you think there’s the sudden 80s nostalgia?
KM: Well, you know what, thank God, because for a long time it seemed like there was an 80s backlash. And it was really strange. We all kind of felt it. I had some business people confirm it. They said, “There’s nothing you can do about it.” 80s backlash. Nobody wants to be associated with anything that has to do with the 80s. So, we were kinda screwed for a while. So, thank God!
KM: There are a lot of us you haven’t seen in some time, aren’t there?
KM: (laughs) Well, to be fair, we all grew up and had lives and stuff, too. You can’t—Our lives don’t stop in between roles. We have lives, too. But, yeah. It made sense to me. I’m not that paranoid that I would’ve come up with that myself but I did hear it from an industry person.
PF: Huh. I had no idea. Now, the 80s is the hot button thing.
KM: Yeah, not anymore. That’s what I’m saying, thank God, whatever that was has passed. Because the 80s has a lot to offer. It was just such an energetic, vibrant time when people weren’t afraid to try things and not afraid to go overboard a little bit, in the quest to make something that was really interesting.
PF: You don’t really see that anymore. The 90s took a pretty nihilistic turn that I don’t think we’re even completely out of yet.
KM: Yeah, exactly. It’s cool to be depressing now. To be fair, Night of the Comet was nihilistic, but in a humorous way. It was a real comment on society, and it was intended to be. One thing that I noticed, the trend went away from establishing characters. My experience in film up to that point had been you cared what was gonna happen to these people, and that was the reason for the movie. But they got away from that, and you didn’t really get introduced to the character, per se, it was more about what was happening. And there was a real shift away from the “final girl,” to making the protagonist—the evil madman—the real star. We’d never seen that before, I don’t think. Well, wait-- I mean, you had Frankenstein, you had Dracula… So I guess that always was there, actually, but there was more of a trend about establishing characters, so you care about what happens to them. Then when all Hell breaks loose the audience is invested. And somewhere along the line it became more that the evil person was glamorized. I’m not sure why.
PF: That was my next question…
KM: I think people became very interested in why people did what they did. I think it was a shift in interest, and, I think it’s a valid step, too. I always think when I see something that explores this psycho character—Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter—“why did he do that?” Then, actually, I realized, once you’ve explored “why did he do that?” it’s not as interesting or edgy as you thought it was gonna be. They’re scarier if they just come out of the blue and you don’t know what’s motivating them. I think that most things are valid as long as you’re telling a story about the human experience. People are gonna love what you’re doing so you’re going to be serving your audience. But I think when you get away from people stories, it becomes less fulfilling for the audience. And that’s depressing. Because we go to the movies to live through that story and be touched by it. If the audience feels like there’s something of them in that movie, that they can feel with the character vicariously, that’s the purpose of it. To entertain but also to touch people. Otherwise, why do it?
PF: That’s an interesting point about character. I remember people taking Joss Whedon to task over the way he’s handled Black Widow in the Avengers franchise, that she’s not a well-rounded, strong female character, and that this was representative on an endemic in Hollywood’s portrayal of strong women. And I remember thinking, “well, go look at Night of the Comet,” they already did that thirty years ago...
KM: And that’s really strange, ‘cause Joss Whedon has said he based Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Sam, my character in Night of the Comet. So for him to be taken to task… maybe it’s because people thought he knew better. Because he recently came out with this quote—maybe he’s changed his focus?—but he said, “As long as people keep asking me why I write strong women, I need to keep writing strong woman.” Which should be the normal thing. But I didn’t know that about The Avengers. Because I always think of him as being known for writing cheeky, strong women. I don’t think I saw Avengers so I can’t speak to whether I felt the character was well rounded or not. You know, there’s a lot of pressure in Hollywood to do the comic book stuff with people, and, maybe that was his focus.
PF: I guess let’s talk Comet. How did you get involved?
KM: I was in New York, where I got started as a teenager on a soap opera [Ryan’s Hope]. And I’d come out to California to do Fast Times at Ridgemont High and went running right back. (laughs) I was a little intimidated. Of course, I was from Minnesota, so at first, I was intimidated by Manhattan, but I was starting to feel like a real New Yorker. And then I came out here and I couldn’t drive and I didn’t know where I was and it was just different out here. So I got a little scared and I ran back home to New York for a while. But my agent told me, “Look, it is off-Broadway here or Broadway,” and I’m not a singer. I’m a little bit of a dancer but I’m not a professional, awesome dancer. So he goes, “You know, the younger the better, you’re gonna have to get your butt out to Los Angeles.” And I knew he was right. I just had, you know, a little resistance. But I had come out here with some friends and we were doing pilot season and stuff like that, and I auditioned for Night of the Comet. And I remember feeling really good about it on my way home, but I didn’t hear anything and I didn’t think anything of it. I went back to New York City, and one day I got a call, “They want to know where you are.” And I said, “You guys knew I came back to New York!” They said, “Well, they’re looking for you, they want you for the role and they want to start shooting.” I said, “Okay, great!” They sent me the script, they said, “It’s called Teenage Comet Zombies but don’t worry, that’s not gonna be the name of it.” And I read this whole script on the plane and it was so funny. It was the funniest thing I’d ever read in my life. I totally thought that we were gonna have to wear paper bags over our heads when we came out. Oh, my God. Here I want to be taken for a serious actress and I’m gonna be in this movie with zombies in it. Oh well! Actresses like to work. And so I was excited to have this part. I really loved the part, and they did change the name, so I came back out here and we started almost right off the bat… I had wanted to read for Regina, I told the producer, because I was sorta typecast, you know? I thought it was time I grew up, and played a grown up woman. And he said, “No. You’re Samantha.” (laughs) Finally, because he had an acting background himself, he said, “Read it for me once. Get it out of your system.” So I did and he said, “You’re Samantha. I’m sorry.”
PF: And you just played that character so perfectly.
KM: And he was right, definitely. Because I think they had always wanted Catherine Mary Stewart for that role. They had seen her in Last Starfighter. And they had seen me in Fast Times. Tom Eberhardt had said, “You know that really annoying cheerleader in Fast Times? Get somebody like that.” (laughs) And they said, “We can actually get her.” And he said, “Cool.” (laughs) Because originally Sam was supposed to be so annoying he was gonna kill her off, and it was going to be Reggie and Hector at the end. And the producers said, “You know, that’s so depressing. The audience is gonna walk out. You have to have a happy ending of sorts, because the audience is gonna feel for her.” And so that’s why I didn’t die. The script was weird. Many people said when it came out, “It just doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy or a serious movie. Well, obviously, it’s a satire that also has heart. The script read hilariously, but when we got on the set we started playing it for real, and, it wasn’t funny. It was serious. So they would have us do one take for laughs and a take for serious. And even the producers were divided. One said, “This is going to be so highly entertaining” and the other said, “This should be serious.” So there was confusion there. But I think we ended up with a more realistic blend that way. If it had just been for laughs, no one would be talking about Night of the Comet today. And if it had just been serious, it would’ve been unbearable. Because it is really one of the first “return of the zombies” in quite a few years, but how seriously was anyone gonna take that at the time?
PF: You say Sam was written as so annoying that she was going to die, but, she comes across as very loveable and vulnerable in the movie. How did that shift come, from obnoxious to endearing?
KM: Once I started playing her, she became a human being. When she’s on the page, that’s one thing. But an actor brings a part to life, and I was playing her with real motivations and real feelings and real needs and real desires in life. And she stopped being annoying because you can understand her. I mean, the wisecracks. I was written wisecrack after wisecrack. And the script, just as it is, they didn’t necessarily change it all that much, but when it plays for real it isn’t one-liner, one-liner, one-liner… in fact, some of the most hilarious lines on the page aren’t even funny in the movie. Though I was worried about losing the laugh, because “Who’s gonna laugh on that one?”
PF: Okay, I have to ask… did either of you get to keep any of the clothes?
KM: Oh, listen—recently I sold it to a collector. I had the entire outfit. I had two cheerleading outfits, one in case I got messed up—I was bound to—so they could wash it in between. And Tom Eberhardt’s daughter got one and she went as me for Halloween all the time when she was a kid. And I got the other one. And I had that for years and years and years in my closet, and just two years ago I sold it to a private collector. But we did! And Cathy had those shoes, those super-cool booties that she had on, but she doesn’t have them anymore. We’ve stayed friends. She said, “I wore them ‘til they wore out, and I don’t have them anymore.”
PF: They really were such iconic costumes. I’ve seen Sam cosplayers at horror cons.
KM: That was another thing, we were getting wardrobed and I thought, “Cathy looks so cool and I look like a clown.” Everything I was wearing was so bright, but that was John Muto and wardrobe’s vision for the movie. When Sam Comes she’s full of color, she’s full of life, and everything else is drab. But even though Cathy’s clothes were drab I thought they were a lot cooler than mine. And I thought, “wow,” all this artistic, brilliant stuff that was going into the making of this low, low budget movie. It was not a big movie or anything but everybody that was involved was bringin’ their a-game. John Muto, and the makeup—the same person that did Freddy [David B. Miller] did the comet zombies. Everybody just stepped up to the plate. You just never know. That’s why movies are magic. You can have the best director, the best script, the best actors, all the money in the world to shoot it, and somehow or another it just doesn’t quite come together. Then you can have, y’know, five dollars and a random bunch of people and all of a sudden you make something that sustains, touches people, hits a nerve. And you never know which one it’s gonna be. It’s like gambling. Movies are magic. You are never gonna put that in a bottle. I mean, right now, they have the formula of, “do comic books, they’re safe, they’re gonna make money,” and that’s a problem. Night of the Comet would never get made today.
PF: Why do you think we’re talking about Comet so many years later?
KM: It struck a chord! And it was, I think, the advent of cable. People have an experience of growing up with it. Chopping Mall, too. They were both on cable a lot. I would get these beautiful letters saying, “You were my babysitter when I was growing up, because my mom had to work at night, so she would put Night of the Comet on, so I wouldn’t be scared, because you guys had guns.” That stuff just touches you so much. Or, “That was my first date.” Things like that. It became a part of people’s lives growing up, I think. And also, we struck a chord. “What would you do?” We all had that concern of everything going away. It was a primal fear. So other than knowing how to shoot guns, my character was a regular person thrown into an extraordinary situation. We all want to think we’d be able to pull it together and survive because we’re all afraid that we wouldn’t. It was very reassuring. “Somehow I will pull this together and survive”. And I actually believe in people so I think we will. But that, I think, had something to do with it. And also people love to laugh at the 80s. Oh, my God. It was, “more, more, more.” Bigger hair, brighter colors, more money, greed, y’know? It was worth laughing it, even at the time! Even at the time, people knew that we were over the top. It wasn’t like people—the people I knew, we always knew that the excess was not gonna last forever.
PF: A lot of the fans I’ve met of Night of the Comet tend to walk away as either avowed Reggie fanboys/fangirls or Sam fanboys/fangirls. What is it about each of the characters that appeals to different people?
KM: Well, I was told by the producer—when I was auditioning, it was a bunch of brunettes, and I was blonde, and I thought, “Oh, this doesn’t bode well.” I said, “Catherine and I look nothing alike. Why is that? We don’t look like sisters.” And he said, “That’s on purpose. We want there to be something for everybody in this movie.” And if you notice, one of the movies that we sprang from was My Man Godfrey, with the dark haired sister and Carole Lombard, and she’s the ditz, and the other sister’s serious. And that contrast makes for good film, and as you can see, it worked. It was pretty sexist, but still funny. “There’s something for everybody in this movie.” And when we started doing interviews for the movie, I could tell when the interviewer had not seen the movie. Because they’d said, “Well, it’s about you and your friend...” And I would go, “Ehhh! Haven’t seen the movie!” (laughs) “Busted!” Not to their faces, but I did think it!
PF: So how did you move from Comet to Chopping Mall?
KM: In the meantime, I had done this (laughs) this super low-budget thing called The Zero Boys. And then I got the call for Chopping Mall. Wynorski had seen Night of the Comet and said that would be a great person for Allison in Chopping Mall. And I was doing Zero Boys, running around in the woods, it was a night shoot, and I went in to meet with him right after. I didn’t go to bed or anything. I was exhausted, and I was super relaxed because I was exhausted, and he said, “great.” And they brought me back in to read for Julie Corman, and I realized, “Oh my God, this is Corman, this is a big deal.” And I got nervous. And he said, “What happened to you!?” So I almost didn’t get it. But in the end I prevailed. The actess that Julie was leaning towards casting didn’t want to do it, because there was swearing and nudity and she didn’t want to be involved. And it turned out I didn’t say one swear word. But, there was nudity, just not on my part. (laughs) And an exploding head.
PF: What is it about Chopping Mall you think that’s given it is’ cult appeal?
KM: I just think it’s the kitchen sink of the 80s. Plus, there’s an homage to every movie that Jim Wynorski ever saw. It’s tongue in cheek, it’s outrageous, but it’s still true to form with the running away from the bad guy. I used to say, “here’s my career in a nutshell. I’m just a regular person, then something comes to get us, and all my little friends get killed, and for some reason at the very end I turn around and destroy whatever’s killing us. I don’t know why I wait til the end of the movie to do that.” (laughs) But that’s the formula, and he followed the formula so people knew what it was. They could be comfortable with that. But then there was so much ridiculous stuff in there. Y’know, like, Peckinpah’s Gun Shop is in a mall. There’s a furniture store in a mall. And I think it grabbed people’s fancy for that reason. Again, it was tongue-in-cheek but we played it for real. If we’d played it tongue in cheek? Forget it. It wouldn’t have been very memorable. But we played it for real.
PF: There is a very sort of ephemeral charm in 80s films. You just know watching them they came out of a very unique era.
KM: Right. You know, Night of the Comet did go around the studios. They were thinking about it. People were asking, “Why isn’t there a remake? Why isn’t there a sequel?” Well, first of all, I don’t think anybody wants to see a sequel, necessarily. But, the feedback that they got, every single one of them—and this is serious—was, “the story is about two girls. Well, we can spend a lot of money and throw in special effects in, but… why?” Looking at it, we didn’t have special effects in the first place, besides smoke machines and a red lens filter. And the movie is the movie. It stands on its’ own. There’s no need to remake it. Because today, the main thing-- the sisters’ relationship-- they won’t make a movie about that anymore. They just wouldn’t do it.
PF: Why do you think there’s been that backwards movement in the depiction of women?
KM: People are scared. One thing we didn’t know, when we were entering the business, was—We saw the movies of the 70s, growing up, when we were kids. We didn’t know that, as actors, directors, all the down the line, that studio thing of the 70s, that’s what we thought we were getting into. Little did we know the same time we were coming up, all of the marketing graduates—all of the business school marketing graduates—were being hired in Hollywood. Because Hollywood was sick and tired of losing money, and the fear factor of never knowing what was gonna be a success or not, especially after the studio systems collapsed. They felt like we lunatics were running the asylum! And they thought, “We’ll get some marketing people in here, and they’ll be able to tell us and we’ll make sure we put all our money into something where we won’t lose it.” Hollywood has been gradually taken over by marketing. We didn’t know it. It was just in the early stages. But now we’ve got it and now you can see what happened. But we got a chance to do some really weird stuff! (laughs)
PF: You’ve got a very diverse body of work, but, you’re probably best known for Chopping Mall and Comet and Fast Times. Are you comfortable with those movies overshadowing the rest of the work you’ve done?
KM: I’d love to do something else in the present day that people would identify with and love as much as those movies, because I’m a middle-aged actress now. It’s awkward for me to be known for stuff I did—I’m not that girl anymore. I’m a grown woman and I’d love to have roles that are appropriate for me now. Having said that, I’m delighted! I mean, who wouldn’t want to be an 80s icon? Why not? People in my business, fantastic actors, they toil away their whole lives and they never have anything they’re recognized for. I had bam, bam, bam. Right out of the gate! So lucky! I just feel really fortunate for that. I’m very grateful that there are fans that made that possible. I just want a chance to do even more stuff.
PF: Would you go back to horror movies?
KM: Oh, yes! I mean, look what’s happening in horror! Bates Motel? Do you watch that show? Vera Farmiga? It’s fantastic! There is lots of brilliant horror coming out. Barbara Crampton is doing some really fantastic movies now. I really think horror is not what it was. It was looked down upon and people were almost embarrassed to be doing it. Whatever. Horror has always been successful, and I don’t know why people put it down. I love it, and I would be delighted to be in a really good horror movie. Absolutely.