Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 11, 2016
Back when poster shops could be found next to any video arcades it was one of the more popular designs: an astronaut seated in a Corvette floating in space with a nebula cloud behind him. It was a poster for a movie that provided an anthology mix of animated science fiction and fantasy tales featuring gratuitous violence, gratuitous nudity, and gratuitous drug use. I still have my cassette tape for the soundtrack album, featuring songs by Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, and onward through the alphabet of stoner classics. The year was 1981. I was 14-years-old, and I ate it up and went back for seconds. By now most people of my generation will know that I’m talking about Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal (1981).
FilmStruck currently has ten titles available for viewing that they’ve clustered under the concept of “Animation for Adults,” and Heavy Metal was deservedly rated R, but I’m here to testify that it was 14-year-old boys like me, teenagers reading too many comic books and high on ditch weed, who were the true audience. The various stories that were loosely tied together were animated by different animation houses and took about three years to assemble with a budget of under ten million. Although the film would eventually double its production cost, it was panned by many critics for being sexist and juvenile… and dated. Which means that by today’s standards I could easily see it being offered up as the ultimate example of “the male gaze” in a Woman’s Studies class. Guilty as charged, to be sure, but for those who are willing to be a bit more forgiving of this particular time capsule, Heavy Metal has many charms to attest to its cult status.
Heavy Metal was produced by Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel, the latter being the founder for Heavy Metal magazine which had its U.S. debut in 1977. Mogel was traveling through Paris in the mid-’70s when he came across Métal Hurlant (“Howling Metal”) and decided to license an American version which translated the graphic stories by various European artists. I grew up reading both versions, and credit the magazine for introducing me to the work of Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Guido Crepax and many other great talents. The magazines eventually would include work by authors such as Harlan Ellison, William S. Burroughs and Stephen King, along with interviews with directors such as Federico Fellini and John Waters. For a young stoner into comics, books, movies, and vinyl it offered up a unique portal into different worlds.
Back to the movie version: The opening sequence featuring the aforementioned astronaut in a Corvette kicks off the narrative with a bang and music by Riggs (“Radar Rider”). When the astronaut gets home he shows his daughter a deadly green sphere which introduces itself as the Loc-Nar – a thing of pure evil that then proceeds to prove it. The Loc-Nar boasts of its destructive influence on other worlds and societies, thus providing us with a narrative thread for all the six segments that follow, beginning with the noirish “Harry Canyon.” Highlights in this story of a cab driver in a dystopian NYC circa 2031 include a voice-over by John Candy and songs by Blue Öyster Cult, Donald Fagaen, Riggs, Stevie Nicks, and Journey.
A note on the music. Sometimes the music is in the foreground, sometimes buried in the background. Problems with the music copyrights are the reason Heavy Metal was unavailable on home video for a while.
“Den” is about a nerdy teenager (voiced by John Candy again), who finds the Loc-Nar and is transported to a different world and transformed into a muscle man who will end up having sex with a beautiful woman. Total teen-boy catnip pie-in-the-sky fantasy stuff including groan-inducing dialogue puns, such as when he says “She had the most beautiful eyes” when her naked breasts are first exposed. A fey leader gets the best line: “If you refuse, you die, she dies, everybody dies.” This segues into the segment titled “Captain Sternn” that transports us to a space station where a trial puts a man on the stand who, aided by the Loc-Nar, turns into a rampaging giant before being jettisoned into space. Cheap Trick gets the only song for this one.
What follows is the “B-17″ segment about pilots fighting zombies, set to “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” by Don Felder, one of the more memorable tracks. The writer for this one was Dan O’Bannon, taking a cue from both his work on Dark Star and Alien. A segment titled “Neverwhere Land” that would have bridged “Den” and “B-17″ was cut due to time constraints although it can be found on the 1996 VHS release as well as a bonus feature on the DVD release.
“So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is one of the funnier segments thanks to its premise of stoner pilots who do a sloppy job of docking into a space station. This one gets packed with six tracks and has the work of Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Nazareth, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar and Trust. All of which culminates with “Taarna,” which involves a strong and beautiful warrior woman who will tie things up with the epilogue. The tracks include double-headers by Black Sabbath (The Mob Rules, E5150), DEVO (Through Being Cool, Working in the Coal Mine) and one by Blue Öyster Cult (Vengence [The Pact] ).
It will not surprise anyone reading to know that the cumulative body count of all the segments above supposedly comes to 69.
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