|"Heavy Metal" was a great film because it took the best part of childhood - cartoons - and the best part of adulthood - porn - and brought them together.
Nowadays that might not seem like much. Since the invasion of Japanese anime in the 90's, cartoon porn can be found in the locker of every teenage nerd at your local high school or in the internet favorites list of every unmarried thirty-something fanzine author on the web. (Waitasec!) But when "Heavy Metal" arrived on the scene in 1981, cartoon porn, indeed, porn itself, was hard to come by. As such, the film was a success in theatres and immediately established itself as a cult classic, a recurring feature at the midnight movie showings on college campuses across America. (Where I first saw the film in 1989.) There was something deliciously forbidden about "Heavy Metal" and I dare say that viewing the movie was almost a rite of passage among my peers. It signified your transformation from a dorky, horny, undersexed teenager into a dorky, horny, undersexed MAN!
"Heavy Metal" the film was based on "Heavy Metal" the "adult" comic magazine. ("Adult" in the sense that it had an extremely juvenile obsession with sex and violence, much like the musical genre from which the magazine took its name.) To those unaware of the world of comic periodicals, it might seem like there would be little difference between comic books and magazines, but I assure you this was not so. Comic books were still considered "kid friendly" and would routinely be stocked on the lower racks of newsstands in Anytown USA. But comic magazines were openly aimed at adults and made no bones about their graphic depictions of debauchery. Titles such as Warren Publications' "Eerie," "1994" and the luscious "Vampirella" as well as Marvel's "The Savage Sword of Conan" and "Epic" (an obvious "Heavy Metal" rip off) were kept much closer to the eye of a watchful news vendor so he'd be able to ward off any curious teenagers attempting to corrupt their souls with the magazines' content. Such periodicals were (gasp!) "taboo," and "HM," with its recurring covers of large breasted female robots, large breasted female gladiators and large breasted female aliens was the cream of the crop.
But "Heavy Metal" the magazine did more than just offer mindless "tit"illation, it featured some genuinely talented cartoonists; illustrators whose skilled draftsmanship could not be contained on the mere pages of your typical Spidey or Super-Man comic. Artists like Mobius, Luis Royo, and Richard Corben all found home on the pages of "Heavy Metal" and produced stories so graphically pleasing one could almost ignore the emotionally stunted plotlines and dialogue. And despite the wide range of styles that graced the magazine, HM had a "look" - certain sheen* - and enough of a commitment to quality that one could make the argument that they were reading the publication for artistic reasons and almost keep a straight face.
* Unlike most comic magazines Heavy Metal was published on gloss paper as opposed to regular newsprint.
With such artistic credentials intact, it was not such a crazy idea to think the stories in the magazine could be transferred to the format of a feature length film. And I would argue that the end result was faithful to both the artistic integrity and juvenile idiocy that could be found in the magazine.
The film "Heavy Metal" tells seven tales all bound by what you could call a meta-narrative about a green floating ball called the Loch-Nar which itself states that it is the cause of all evil in the universe*. In the opening sequence a space astronaut flies his souped up space-faring hot rod home to a quiet house on what looks to be earth but one can never be sure. He is greeted by his excited pre-teen daughter who anxiously asks, "What did you bring me?" The amused father open ups his space-suitcase to reveal the glowing Loch-Nar which immediately incinerates him and corners the frightened girl. In ominous tones, the Loch-Nar beseeches the child to watch as it reveals several stories (of varying quality) illustrating its vast power.
* This sort of concept has always grated my sense of morality, as it seems to let man of the hook for pain caused by his sins. ("Don't blame me, Ma! Blame the Loch-Nar.")
Now if you were a teenager in the late 80's, you were thinking, "So far, so good," though you might have been wondering why the astronaut's daughter couldn't've been a buxom, scantily clad twenty-year-old. And the first story does not disappoint. Titled "Harry Canyon" it details the adventures of a cabbie in a futuristic New York. (This sequence clearly was the impetus for the 1997 Bruce Willis vehicle, "The Fifth Element.) Harry, a street smart but burnt out slob, picks up an buxom, scantily clad twenty-year-old as she is running from a group of gun-toting Venusian gangsters. In musical tones, she explains her plight, that said gangsters have killed her father, a museum curator, in an attempt to locate an artifact he'd hidden (the Loch-Nar.) Harry tries to get the police involved, but in modern New York they only work for fee, so he takes her back to his apartment and tells her she can crash on the couch. Improbably, this vivacious lass decides she'd rather sleep with balding, pot-bellied Harry and they two commence lovemaking. The next day Harry wakes up to - STOP!!! I can't believe I was just about to blithely go right past that lovemaking scene with nary a comment. To watch it now the scene would appear to be a cartoonish rendition of the type of 80's video porn everyone's seen a thousand times. (Ummm, you have seen that stuff a thousand times, right?) But were you a 17-year-old dork in a late night movie theater, your eyes were practically bugging out of your skull! Indeed, I suspect this scene might be the first taste that many a beleaguered dillwad first got of the mechanics of sex.
Anyway, so Harry wakes, up, the girl is gone and he's soon visited by both the police and the Venusians with a demand that he track her down. He does, she agrees to make a deal with gangsters to give them the Loch-Nar, and then the story takes several more twists that involve many horrible deaths and a final look at the beautiful girl's ample assets. And then we dive right into story II.
"Den," was based on an ongoing series that quintessential "Heavy Metal" artist Richard Corben did for the magazine. Corben's work is unmistakable, combining well-muscled scantily clad men with large-breasted, even more scantily clad women. However, Corben's unique style proved too difficult to animate, so the "Den" segment on the film has a much more pedestrian look. Nonetheless, the story and voice dialogue by John Candy makes it worth viewing. As we watch, a beleaguered high school nerd name Dan finds himself ported into another dimension and into the boffo body of Den, a hulking, half naked warrior. Soon he comes across an fully naked earth woman who utters that most perfect of sentences, "if any part of me pleases your senses, I will give it to you willingly*." But soon his consort is kidnapped and Den must do battle with various sword wielding cults that seek the power of the Loch-Nar to empower their evil or somesuch. The story resolves nicely and we go onto the next segment.
*Rumor has it Lincoln was going to start out the Gettysburg address with this baby but lost his nerve.
"Captain Sternn" seems to be either loved or reviled by watchers of the film. Based on the illustrations of Bernie Wrightson, a tremendous comic talent who came to the world's attention during a run on the DC comic book, "The Swamp Thing," the story begins at the space station trial of square jawed Captain Stern, a larcenous cad being held for space piracy. The first witness against him is a fumbling dolt, Hanover Fist, who offers the only kind words for the Captain. The nature of his testimony changes, however, as he begins fingering the small green orb hanging from his neck, and soon he has transformed into a gargantuan beast intent on ripping the Captain into itty-bitty pieces. From there we enter a comical montage as the Captain is chased throughout the station, barely dodging his attacker's destructive blows. Once again, there's a bit of a twist ending.
Next is my least favorite segment, though I came across several authors of the web who gave it high praise. "B-17" is authored by Dan O'Bannon, the man who gave us the seminal sci-fi flick "Alien" as well as being instrumental to launching the career of director John Carpenter. In this story, two pilots of a tattered, airborne WWII warplane discover that not only are the rest of their crew horribly dead, but they are being chased by a... you guessed it, flying green orb. The orb brings down the plane on an island that appears to be a graveyard of lost planes and there, the real agony begins.
(As I describe it, I realize it really isn't that bad a plotline, but for some reason this segment has never held for me in repeated viewings.)
The next story is the most comic of the film. A buxom female stenographer is sucked out of the Pentagon by a giant space ship piloted by two "Cheech and Chong" aliens and a funnel eared robot voiced again by John Candy. The robot proceeds to sexually satisfy the young women in ways she has never felt and then propose marriage to which she eventually accepts on the condition they have a "Jewish wedding." The stoned alien pilots consume a vast amount of space coke and then crash-land their plane in the docking bay of a large space station. Not much to it on paper, by there are several bits of dialogue that make this section enjoyable.
At this point, the Loch-Nar which has been providing partial narration of the stories in the film announces he will tell one more tale and then kill his imprisoned audience of one. The final segment "The Legend of Taarna" is probably the most famous of the film.
A city of "philosophers and statesmen" is overrun by a siege of raging maniacs empowered by the Loch-Nar's evil. The statesmen decide to summon "Taarna", the sole survivor of a race that is dedicated to protecting them. This survivor, of course, turns out to be a totally hot chick with massive hooters and a propensity for walking around naked. She takes about twenty minutes to lovingly adorn herself with a minimalistic set of leather battle armor and arrives at the city to discover that everyone is dead. (Leading the viewer to wonder why these philosopher statesmen waited until the Barbarians had already overrun the gates before making any effort to summon help.) Having failed in her role as defender, Taarna becomes an avenger and flies over to a local bar in an effort to seek out these soldiers of doom. (It's worth noting that the bar-band is playing the music of my favorite band, Devo.) In a great scene she decapitates three ruffians and is then informed of location of the encampment of her enemies. Mounting her flying bird/lizard steed she heads over there, gets captured, is stripped, whipped and then has a woman-to-man battle with the cybernetic leader of these dark commandos.
While it is an enjoyable futuristic sci-fi/sword and sorcery epic what most struck me about this segment is what a crummy "ultimate warrior" Taarna is. She's constantly saved from the brink of death by her flying lizard/bird steed. (Seriously, I hope this creature got a giant sized salt lick for all the abuse he takes in the film.) That said, the Taarna story ends up having some relevance to the meta-narrative of the Loch-Nar and the young girl, and the end result is that "evil is held in balance for another generation"
In a nutshell, that is the majesty of "Heavy Metal." The film went on to spawn a sequel, "Heavy Metal 2000", which I have not seen, my sense being that animated porn flick would not have the same effect in the cultural ether of modern times. What I think made the original Heavy Metal film have such an impact is that it showed animation could be more that the Disney-fied family-friendly fare it had been for decades. (Other films played a role in this transition as well. "Fritz the Cat" and Ralph Bakshi's movies come to mind, but it was "HM" that really sent the boulder tumbing down the mountain.) Any kid who'd stayed up late to watch "Porky's" on HBO had seen titties - but animated titties!? That was a serious mindfuck. And it was in this process of perverting the minds of an entire generation of emotionally underdeveloped, comic book reading, late-night movie viewing teenagers (ensuring all their relations with real women would be soured with comparisons to the impossible curvitude of the film's feminine ideal) that "Heavy Metal" secured its place in history.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!