Flashback Friday: Heavy Metal-The Movie

By on August 1, 2014
heavy metal

The film “Heavy Metal: The Movie” and I have a colorful history. Like many a child of the 80’s, I first saw it on cable, the direct result of having a TV as my babysitter, more often than not. Being raised by a single mother, who worked hard to care for me and my sister, we were often left to our own devices at home. We didn’t have a lot of luxuries, but one that pretty much everyone agreed upon was cable, including HBO.

Back then, if I recall correctly, R-rated stuff was confined to the night time hours, but my sister and I would often either watch whatever was on until my mother got home–or sneak out of our bedroom late at night and watch TV then. As a result, we got to see certain things at an early age that most kids our age didn’t get to, which would ultimately lead to people wanting to hang out with us for the cable benefits. This was before all that, though, so back then, we often had no idea what sort of films we were getting into until it was too late.

A perfect example of this is “Heavy Metal.” In this case, my mother herself plopped me down in front of the TV at some point relatively early on in my single digits and clicked through the channels until something animated came up, and she went off to do whatever. On this fateful day, that animated selection happened to be “Heavy Metal.”

An astronaut takes a ride-ride-ride in "Heavy Metal." Courtesy of www.eccentric-cinema.com

An astronaut takes a ride-ride-ride in “Heavy Metal.”
Courtesy of www.eccentric-cinema.com

Now, those of you already familiar with the film already know what the result of that was, but for those who don’t, here’s a little back-story about the film in question.

First of all, the film has nothing to do with the musical genre, aside from featuring some choice metal tracks on the soundtrack, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Instead, it was adapted from the magazine of the same name, an early example of the graphic novel format which would later become huge business in the mainstream but at that point was relatively in its infancy.

Thanks to my uncle, who collected magazines like it and the likes of “Eerie,” “Creepy,” “Vampirella” and so on, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the format, though I had yet to get that into it. “Heavy Metal: The Movie” would change all that.

Basically, each issue of the magazine would feature a variety of short stories, some of which were longer efforts spread out over multiple issues, much like a regular comic would do with a multiple-issue story arc about Batman, the X-Men, et al. The movie simply chose a few of these and translated them to the animated movie format.

Where “Heavy Metal” the magazine diverted from the typical comic genre was in the content. While violence in comic books was already firmly established in the likes of EC comics, such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror” and so forth, “Heavy Metal” took that to the next level with extreme violence and nudity and full-throttle strong sexual content to boot. To put it mildly, then, it was decidedly not for the kiddies. As for my mother’s decision to let me watch such a thing: hey, it was the 80’s. These things happened.

“Heavy Metal: The Movie” was divided into several segments of varying length, with a connecting wraparound storyline to introduce each of the stories (a.k.a a “framing device”), which was typical of many anthology films, i.e. “Creepshow.” Most everyone has a favorite story, to be sure, but hands down, mine was the “Taarna” one, which revolved around the titular heroine–emphasis on the first syllable–who was the last of a warrior race called the Taarakians and was summoned to avenge a peaceful city laid to waste by some mutated barbarian types. She tracks them down, and a showdown ensues.

Taarna and her vehicle of choice in "Heavy Metal." Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

Taarna and her vehicle of choice in “Heavy Metal.”
Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

That’s about it, but I was suitably wowed as a kid, in particular by her vehicle of choice, a freaky-looking bird thing, and that wow-inducing outfit. I’ve always maintained that if I ever found a girl who opted to sport that outfit for Halloween by choice, I would marry her on the spot.

It’s pretty awe-inspiring stuff, even to this day. (Yes, I’m well aware that it means one of my first crushes was on a cartoon–I liked Ariel, too, and she’s part fish, so sue me!) About the closest thing I’ve seen to it in real life is legendary cult actress Caroline Munro’s outfit in the otherwise pretty terrible Corman flick “Starcrash.”

There’s also a fun segment called “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” involving two alien pilots hopped up on Plutonian Nyborg (Eugene Levy, of “American Pie” and actor/director Harold Ramis, of “Ghostbusters”) and a horny robot (John Candy, “Uncle Buck”) crushing on a human secretary (Alice Playten, “Legend”).

Many fans–particularly of the nerdy persuasion–also love the wish fulfillment tale “Den” about a geek (Candy, again), who finds a green meteorite that transforms him into a massive warrior who then rescues a virgin from a ritual sacrifice, enjoys the spoils of his heroic efforts after, then finally joins a mission to retrieve a green orb known as the Loc-Nar, which crops up in all of the stories.

The burgeoning horror fan in me also loved the short-but-sweet story “B-17,” written by “Alien” scribe Dan O’Bannon, about what amounts to zombies on a plane; and the film noir type story “Harry Cannon,” which is sort of like “Blade Runner”-meets-“Taxi Driver,” with a healthy dose of “Sin City” before there was such a thing. (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what inspired Frank Miller’s beloved series, however.)

Nerd-turned-warrior Den tries not to be a dork in "Heavy Metal." Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

Nerd-turned-warrior Den tries not to be a dork in “Heavy Metal.”
Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

Finally, there’s “Captain Sternn,” about a man (Levy, again) charged with…well, pretty much everything nasty you can think of. With the help of a bribed witness, he hopes to evade prosecution, but things go a little awry in the process.

The wraparound sequence, “Grimaldi,” deals with a little girl who receives the Loc-Nar as a gift from her astronaut father, which subsequently kills him and tells the girl about its various misdeeds over the years, as featured within the various stories.

In the end, the girl discovers she has a lineage she never knew about (and which is directly connected to one of the stories), which allows her to combat the evil space orb and save the day.

So, full disclosure: “Heavy Metal: The Movie” is often silly, juvenile, sexist, and occasionally borderline offensive. The stories are mostly slight and more than a little half-baked- as were the writers and animators, no doubt. But I unequivocally love it and make no apologies. Yes, a big draw back then might have been the sight of buxom animated naked ladies, but time has led me to not be able to fault it for any of its many indiscretions. Once you love something, it’s hard to stop, after all.

Helping matters, in terms of defending such a film, are two major, undeniable strengths: the animation and the soundtrack. The animation is simply gorgeous, and among the first examples of a style that would later blow up in Anime big-time as well as on the much-beloved MTV series “Liquid Television,” notably on the ongoing segment “Aeon Flux,” which itself later became a movie with star Charlize Theron making a solid case for one-upping Taarna’s famed outfit IRL. (Alas, I have never been in a position to propose, so the dream continues…)

The back and front cover of the "Heavy Metal" soundtrack. Courtesy of imdb.com

The back and front cover of the “Heavy Metal” soundtrack.
Courtesy of imdb.com

The soundtrack, despite the film title, is hardly limited to metal, though it certainly brings the thunder with the likes of Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar and Blue Öyster Cult, who also wrote a unused song, “Vengeance (The Pact),” which spells out the “Taarna” sequence in lyrical form–hence it not being used, being the equivalent of a musical “spoiler.” Indeed, the Sabbath (circa Dio’s era), BÖC and Hagar songs rank among their best efforts of the period.

However, the soundtrack also features New Wave favorites Cheap Trick (two of their all-time best, IMHO, “Reach Out” and “I Must Be Dreamin”) and Devo (“Working in the Coal Mine,” “Through Being Cool”), one of my all-time favorite Stevie Nicks songs, plus tracks from Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame, and Don Felder of the Eagles (with his fellow Eagles singing back-up). Hell, even the bands I’d never heard of before or since, Riggs and Trust, are both pretty good. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, isn’t too shabby, either. Both are fairly readily available online and well-worth the purchase.

A sequel “Heavy Metal 2000” followed in 2000, and, while not nearly as good as the original, has its own set of…charms. However, the plot is strictly one storyline (based on the graphic novel “The Melting Pot”), which may not appeal to purists who prefer the multiple storyline format of this film. Still, if you’ve seen the original one too many times, it’s a viable alternative, I suppose. Some of you may have also seen the “South Park” homage to the movie, aptly-titled “Major Boobage.”

An iconic  still from the "So Beautiful and So Deadly" segment from "Heavy Metal." Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

An iconic still from the “So Beautiful and So Deadly” segment from “Heavy Metal.”
Courtesy of www.heavymetalmagazinefanpage.com

More recently, multi-talented writer/director/et al. Robert Rodríguez purchased the rights to “Heavy Metal” and is said to be developing an ongoing TV series for his El Rey Network based on the magazine’s many stories over the years. The magazine itself is still very much up and running, and you can check out the website here. Be sure to click on the gallery section for some eye-popping artwork!

“Heavy Metal: The Movie” may not be one of the best animated films ever, but it’s not one of the worst, either. But if you’re of a certain sort of mentality–i.e. a nerd, geek, etc.–it’s a lot of fun. If you like fantasy, horror, sci-fi and similar Comic Con-type nerd bait, you’re gonna like this, to be sure.

It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray alike and, as I write this, is available on Netflix streaming, so you won’t have to search hard to find it. Whatever the case, if you saw it at a certain age, as I did, it will always hold a special place in your heart–or at least your loins.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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