Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Recent Watches: Heavy Metal (1981)

In France in the seventies and eighties, glossy comic anthology “Metal Hurlant” featured sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories brought to life with mind-bending artwork and usually featuring lots of sex and violence. When the comics were brought to the States as “Heavy Metal,” comic fans not only got an eye full of stuff that would never fly in American comics but were also introduced to phenomenal artists like Moebius and Giger. The magazine’s cult following was such that an animated adaptation rolled into production. Produced by Ivan Reitman and featuring the vocal talents of many “SCTV” cast members, the film version of “Heavy Metal” gained its own cult following. Unavailable for many years due to copyright issues, “Heavy Metal” has earned its status as a classic of demented animation.

Featuring seven stories, “Heavy Metal’s” divergent tales are connected by the Loc-Nar, a floating green orb made of pure evil, whose influence spans time and space. What really connects the stories of “Heavy Metal” is an overriding, utterly juvenile sensibility. The women are busty, bodacious, and often naked. The scenes that aren’t packed full of blood and gore are full of sex and crude humor. The stories trade freely in sci-fi and fantasy clichés. This is best emphasized by “Den,” an adaptation of “Metal Hurlant’s” long running fantasy series. A mostly naked, buff barbarian warrior battles monsters and demons, an evil queen, an immortal sorcerer, and has lots of sex with gorgeous girls. “Heavy Metal’s” twelve-year-old-boy mindset is unabashed. What saves it from just being sleazy, campy fun is a sense of humor. In “Den,” the hero is literally a teenage boy transported from Earth into the hero’s body. (He’s also voiced by John Candy, an amusingly incongruous bit of casting.) He frequently comments on the absurdity of his situations. That self-aware comedy characterizes most of “Heavy Metal,” allowing its audience to indulge in its guilty pleasures.

“Heavy Metal” throws the entire genre experience into one stew. The science fiction elements are frequently bleak and gritty. Look at the first proper story in the film, “Harry Canyon.” The eponymous cab driver exist in a hellish future New York, where criminals and aliens freely roam. After picking up a scantily clad and top-heavy redhead – and, naturally, bedding her not long afterwards – Harry is embroiled in a scheme to sell the Loc-Nar from Venusian gangsters. “Harry Canyon” blends film noir stereotypes and nihilistic sci-fi. The animation in “Heavy Metal” is frequently crude but the detailed backgrounds and swift action of “Harry Canyon” is well executed. Richard Romanus, who has experience playing both cartoons and tough guys, provides a hysterically gritty voice over throughout the story.

That so many “SCTV” cast members are heard in “Heavy Metal” speaks to the thread of absurdist comedy running throughout much of the film. In addition to Candy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, and Eugene Levy also voice characters. Sometimes the film’s comedy works better than others. The “Captain Stern” segment is devoted to a despicable space captain’s trial. When the man he’s paid to testify in his favor goes crazy due to the Loc-Nar’s influence, the sequence goes off the rails. The man’s Hulk-style transformation doesn’t provide much humor and the conclusion is needlessly grim. Stern looking like a classical sci-fi hero but acting like a scoundrel is the scene’s best joke. “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is better. After being abducted by stoner aliens, a ridiculously sexy secretary immediately falls into bed with the ship’s robot. The alien pilots’ antics, which involve snorting space cocaine and crashing their ship, makes the story feel like a cartoon, sci-fi version of “Stripes.” There’s not much story, just a series of amusingly goofy and sexy gags. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s not just the copious female nudity and frequent boning that typifies “Heavy Metal’s” adolescent attitudes. The movie also packs in the cartoon violence. Harry Canyon has a death ray in the back of his cab which reduces people to pile of viscera. The “Den” and “Taara” sequences feature plenty of head bashings, gun shot wounds, decapitations, and victims screaming in agony. The goriest story in “Heavy Metal” is its only proper horror tale. “B-17,” penned by Dan O’Bannon, concerns a World War II fighter plane beset by zombies. Though a simple tale, the segment generates some decent atmosphere. The cramped interior of the plane is a great setting for a horror story and the grisly zombies are properly ghoulish.

The longest story in “Heavy Metal” is also its most iconic. Warrior woman Taarna, riding her vaguely pterodactyl-esque steed across the sky, graced the poster. Silent, ashen-haired, and clad in what amounts to a leather bikini, Taarna still makes an impression on the audience. Though her frequently naked and helpless state makes re-claiming her as a feminist figure impossible, Taarna is still a bad ass warrior. The action and animation in “Taarna” is also the best in the film. The story, of a warrior riding into town and defeating an evil despot, isn’t anything special. The execution is swift and entertaining, with a finale that ties in nicely with the framing device.

Those that dismiss “Heavy Metal” as puerile and unsophisticated aren’t wrong. For that matter, they’re right on the mark. Even the animation, which I would categorize as sub-Bakshi, doesn’t earn very high marks. But there’s something to be said for a gory, sexy, and basic collection of stories that tickle the lizard brain this way. Despite what the title indicates, there’s actually very little heavy metal on “Heavy Metal’s” soundtrack. It’s mostly dad rock and new wave, with Devo themselves appearing in the film as a sci-fi bar band. Even though some Iron Maiden or Judas Priest would pair perfectly with the proceedings, the soundtrack is still pretty great as is. Watched late at night with some similarly minded friends, “Heavy Metal” entertains fantastically. [8/10]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

It's a confusing movie to see when you're eight.