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Subj: Sci-Fi Cinema: Heavy Metal (1981)
Posted: Sat Feb 06, 2021 at 09:16:23 pm EST (Viewed 154 times)
Metal Hurlant (Screaming Metal) was a French sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthology comic magazine for adults, meaning it had lots of sex, violence, foul language and drug use, created in 1974 by the "Associated Humanoids": Jean 'Moebius' Giraud, Phillippe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas. It ran until 1987 with a brief comeback from 2002-2004.
It came to the U.S. as Heavy Metal starting in 1977 and is still published to this day; as some might say, "the triumph of the echo over the voice." At first it mostly reprinted stories from the French magazine but later it started to incorporate original U.S. stuff. It was also printed in Germany as Schwermetall and I wonder if they produced any original content?
Leonard Mogel, publisher of the U.S. magazine got the idea to create an animated movie based on some of the stories. He directed the movie with Ivan Reitman co-producing, got a bunch of good sountrack artists and for some reason cast several members of SCTV as prominent voices in the movie: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty.
This is one of those movies I saw when I was about 10 at my neighbor's house when his Dad wasn't home and we could go through his non-kid-friendly video tapes. It certainly left an impression. I rewatch it every few years and it doesn't speak to me in the same way now that it did to budding adolescent me back then, but there is a lot to like about it still (and some stuff I'd be embarrassed to see with even my older kids).
Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote when it came out in 1981: "It's the most expensive adolescent fantasy revenge fulfillment wet dream ever to slither onto a screen." If that doesn't get your juices pumping, what does?
Since this movie is an anthology I'm going to pick through it one segment at a time and talk about the comic roots as well.
Heavy Metal (1981)
First of all I don't know if any title logo other than Star Wars was as memorable to me. The movie starts off in outer space with the voice of the narrator telling us "A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path, and death will come from the skies." Then the title "HEAVY METAL" comes screeching onto the screen sideways with the sound of metal scraping and chains ratcheting all glowing red like it's being dragged out of Hell. Then it lights up with a crack of lightning. We see a NASA space shuttle open it's cargo bay doors and out pops a convertible car with an astronaut behind the wheel (I think Elon Musk got his idea from this) who steers toward Earth, heats up on reentry, turning on the windshield wipers to clear the soot out of his view, then landing on the ground and deploying a drag chute only after he's bounced off the dirt, finally driving up to a house out in the country, all with some rock and roll blaring. This sequence dubbed "Soft Landing" is a good preview of what's to come. It kicks total ass and makes not a bit of sense. It was based on about a two-page comic from Dan O'Bannon and Thomas Warkentin.
"Grimaldi" sees the astronaut carry a case out of his car, go up the house and greet his teenage daughter. He opens the case to show her what he found in space: The Loc-Nar, a glowing green orb which immediately melts the man into goo and backs the girl into a corner, speaking in the voice of the earlier narrator, identifying itself as "the sum of all evil in the universe" and offering to tell her a bunch of stories about evil throughout time and space. This is the framing device made up for the movie that will link all the chapters together.
We travel the future of New York City in 2031 where things are grimier than ever. Harry Canyon is the driver of a yellow cab armed with retractable guns and a disintegrator in the back seat for fares that give him trouble. He muses that the U.N. is going to start allowing extra-terrestrial immigrants, or "Goddamn illegal aliens." He witnesses an old man being murdered by some gangsters, and his super-hot daughter jumps in his cab and asks for help. He's a sucker for a pretty face.
He takes her to the local police station where they charge by the day for murder investigations, so they end up back at his place instead. Of course she disrobes for our first taste of cartoon nudity. It seems gratuitous, but if that turns you off, there's no point in watching the rest of the movie, because that's what it's about. "I must have turned her on something fierce ... or maybe it was just her first time with a New Yorker" Harry thinks to himself. His musings really are the saving grace of this segment. Harry is voiced very well by Richard Romanus, who also voiced Weehawk in Wizards. This is a more memorable character.
The girl says the gangsters killed her dad to get their hands on the Loc-Nar which was discovered recently. She's got it now, and has decided just to sell it to them and be done with it, and wants Harry along for protection. They actually execute the sale and the gangster doesn't double-cross them or anything. That's just so the girl can double-cross Harry immediately after. Everything is rushed in these segments because they are all 15 minutes or less. The city looks nice but the story is so bare boned.
Wikipedia says this segment was based on "The Long Tomorrow," a story written by Dan O'Bannon (writer of Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall) and drawn by Moebius that appeared in Metal Hurlant. The city shots look like Moebius artwork but the plot and characters are all original to the movie and neither of these two are credited for it. So I don't know if that claim is true but it did point me to the comic which has been collected and looks interesting. Future noir.
A skinny nerd finds the Loc-Nar near his house and puts in his rock collection. He's busy with an experiment harnassing lightning during a storm which strikes the Loc-Nar, opening a portal that sends the nerd through time and space, morphs him into a giant bald muscleman called Den and drops him on some barbarian fantasy planet called Neverwhere. He's naked and he says "I can't walk around with my dork hanging out" so he grabs a loincloth and covers up. Having read some of the original comic, I can assure you that he does indeed walk around with his dork hanging out. I don't know if it's just the Americanization at work but this movie that is liberal with female nudity is shy about the males.
Den has appeared next to a temple with a giant swimming pool where a naked Queen and her orc minions are about to throw a voluptuous nude chick into the pool as a sacrifice to their god. Den dives in to rescue her and swims her off to some garden where they have sex as a reward for his good deed. But they are captured by Ard, a king from a nearby land who is at war with the Queen and they both want the Loc-Nar to present to their god. Ard says he'll kill the girl unless Den steals the Loc-Nar from the Queen, there are some barbarian battles, and when the Queen captures Den she has sex with him before killing him. It's like a dime-store romance novel, all problems can be solved through sex.
Finally Ard and the Queen end up wrestling over the Loc-Nar next to the pool and there's magic flowing around and the green orb melts them both while Den and the girl escape. He could have been king but he'd rather just be Den.
I believe the Loc-Nar that is used to frame all of the stories in this movie originated from the Den comic.
The Den/Neverwhere story by Richard Corben started in Metal Hurlant and was published in various installments of various publications over the years including Penthouse Comix and has been collected in a bunch of editions. John Candy voices Dan/Den in the movie and while both nerd and muscleman sound a little cliche they both sound different, and Candy got the best notices by critics of anyone in this movie. My favorite voice in this segment is the obnoxious Ard, voiced by Martin Lavut, who didn't have a long acting career but did some voices for Canadian animation house Nelvana, who did the Beatles' Yellow Submarine and Rock & Rule and were offered Heavy Metal but turned it down.
On a space station, Captain Sternn stands accused of a laundry list of crimes including piracy, theft, rape, "and one moving violation." I don't know what fleet Sternn is a captain in, but he's dressed like a doorman and oozes confidence. His lawyer is more nervous, telling him to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. "The most you can hope for is to be buried in secrecy so your grave don't get violated!" I'd look for different counsel.
Sternn says he's got an angle and that is Hanover Fiste, a meek fellow who takes the stand to attest to Sternn's character. We saw Fiste discover the Loc-Nar in a prior scene, which had shrunk itself down to the size of a marble. He fiddles with it during his testimony. As he starts to paint Sternn as "an overflowing cup filled with the cream of human goodness" he seems to lose control of himself and blurt out truths like "the pre-schoolers prositution ring" to Sternn's dismay. Every time Fiste tries to say something nice the truth breaks through and each outbust causes him to grow larger in size like the Hulk. I guess the marble is causing it. Fiste completely Hulks out into a giant who tears apart the witness stand and chases Sternn through the courtroom, trying to kill him. Soon it's a chase across the entire space station.
Fiste finally corners Sternn who pulls out a wad of cash and says "you've had this coming, Hanover" and pays him off. Fiste retuns to normal for a second and Sternn throws him out an airlock, and we see the Loc-Nar in his grip as he floats into space.
This was one of my favorites as a kid and I always wondered how it would have played out in the original book with no Loc-Nar to influence things. When I finally read it, I see how the movie sort of missed the point. Fiste wasn't trying to kill Sternn, it was all a ruse to get him out of the courtroom and at the end, Sternn pays him off and they remain friends.
The comic short in Heavy Metal magazine was by Bernie Wrightson who came back and gave Sternn another mini series in the 90s and I was sort of disappointed because it wasn't as dirty. And if Sternn was really sex-trafficking as the movie claims, he wouldn't make much of a hero, so Wrightson softened him a bit for the comic sequel.
Sternn is voiced by Eugene Levy, and no matter how much I listen to it, I can't quite hear it. It's a great voice but it doesn't sound like Levy, I guess he created a good character. Roger Bumpass who voices Hanover Fiste is probably better known as Squidward on Spongebob Squarepants.
A World War II bomber goes on a mission and as it's flying home it takes fire and most of the crew is killed. That's just the beginning as the Loc-Nar flies out of the sky and boards the plane, turning the dead into green zombies. They awaken and kill the rest of the crew. At last the pilot sees them breaking into the cockpit and jumps out with a parachute, but finds himself on an island with more zombies.
Not much to say about this one. I really like the shots of the plane which was traced over a model, I think, while the song Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride) by Don Felder plays. The story is like an EC Comic without any ironic twist. Zombies just come to life and kill everyone.
SO BEAUTIFUL & SO DANGEROUS
At the Pentagon, a group of Senators want an explanation about strange radiation coming from space. A man in glasses assures them that after extensive research, he can say absolutely there is no intelligent life in the universe outside of Earth. As he's saying this a giant city-sized spaceship has parked itself over the Pentagon. The guy in glasses sees a green jewel on the blouse of a busty secretary that looks like the Loc-Nar and attacks her, trying to have sex with her on the conference table in front of everyone, I guess? The space ship drills into the Pentagon and sends down a tube to suck up the guy in glasses and I guess gets the girl too, by mistake. On the ship, the guy in glasses breaks apart into a malfunctioning robot. The girl is greeted by a little metal robot who immediately falls in love with her.
The ship blasts off into deep space and in one of my favorite memories, drifts past the wreck of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek. It predicted Star Trek III a few years before it happened.
The ship is piloted by Zeke and Edsel, a pair of aliens who cover the floor of the bridge in something that looks like cocaine and sniff it all up and then have a chat about flying while stoned.
We cut back to the girl and the robot in bed together, she is buck naked of course. They talk about the problems of a mixed marriage. He's a robot and she's a Jew. "Women who experience sexual pleasure with mechanical assistance always feel guilty" he muses. If it wasn't for the quips, there wouldn't be much to work with here.
This one seems to differ quite a bit from the comic by Angus McKie, which appeared in Heavy Metal mag but got reprinted as a one-shot. A couple of the images like the huge ship parked over the Pentagon or the giant space station they end up at are taken from the book. There are no drugs or sex in the comic, I think.
Once again you've got John Candy front and center as the voice of the robot, with Levy and Ramis doing the voices of the druggie aliens. The girl is voiced by Alice Playten and it seems like she was big on Broadway, I don't know how she got involved in this kind of thing, but did appear in National Lampoon's Disco Beaver from Outer Space and the Lampoon did have a hand in publishing the U.S. Heavy Metal in the early days.
In the final segment, the Loc-Nar crashes into a volcano on a futuristic/fantasy planet and starts spewing out green lava. It washes over a group of townspeople turning them into green-skinned barbarians that want to kill everything that's not them. After ransacking a nearby town, the city leaders call a council meeting and decide to summon the last Taarakian from a race of ancient warriors.
Taarna is a white-haired warrior woman who of course is summoned nude and goes for a swim and then slowly suits up in a black leather bikini with just enough armor to protect one shoulder and knee. She mounts some kind of lizard-bird steed to fly off and confront the bad guys.
She goes to a bar where Devo is playing and lops off some scoundrel's heads. Later when she finds the barbarian camp, she is tortured and whipped before breaking free to do combat with the leader, a cyborg whose robot hand morphs into a saw blade. I can't overstress the effectiveness of the sound effects in this movie, especially that saw blade cutting through flesh.
This is the longest segment and while the story is simple, the animation is very nice, much of it rotoscoped over live actors. There is a great transition where a council member is impaled with a bunch of arrows and his dead body fades into a landscape shot where his body becomes a distant hill and the arrows become some fence posts or something.
In the end Taarna dives into the volcano on her steed, destroying the Loc-Nar. Back in the framing story, the Loc-Nar which has the girl cornered in the farmhouse also explodes. Maybe he shouldn't have told that story.
Wikipedia says this sequence was based on Moebius' "Arzach" story from Metal Hurlant but once again, it shares no characters, it just has the same world. Once again, Moebius gets no credit in the movie which seems wrong, since he was also one of the creators of the magazine. There was a 2003 French animated TV series Arzak Rhapsody based on his property.
This movie has a wealth of wonderful images but I think the sex, specifically, would be a turn off for most. It doesn't come across as adult to me, but juvenile and crass. As a kid, it was the reason to watch. As an adult, it's the part that makes me blush even though I want to watch the rest of it. But I suppose the point is that anything was possible when you're uncensored, and this kind of proves it. So that's something.
I should also mention Percy Rodrigues, uncredited, as the voice of the Loc-Nar who narrates the movie. He's got a fantastic voice for this and he's got a laundry list of TV credits, I suppose I'll always remember him from Star Trek's "Court Martial."
Comparing it to some of Ralph Bakshi's stuff, this looks so clean and polished. The frame rate is high, animation is smooth. Characters are shaded. Backgrounds are detailed. It looks like money, especially for its time.
Not only does it have a good sountrack from the likes of Black Sabbath (Dio version), Cheap Trick, Devo, etc., the score music by Elmer Bernstein who did everything from The Ten Commandments to Ghostbusters is also pretty fantastic. This movie had two soundtracks released, one for the songs and one for the score.
Issues with music clearances kept this from being released on home media until 1996. Those like me in the mid-80s were only able to see it on 4th generation VHS copies taped off HBO or wherever it had aired.
I remember there was a special issue of the magazine released in the 90s which reprinted all of the stories that were the basis for the movie segments, that's where I got to read them.
This movie was followed by another animated film, Heavy Metal 2000 in 2000 which was not an anthology, and I didn't really like the story. I don't remember much of it so maybe I'll watch it again one day to see if I gave it a fair shake. It was based on the graphic novel "Melting Pot" by Kevin Eastman and Simon Bisley.
There was another sequel in development for many years by the likes of David Fincher, Tim Miller, Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, to name a few. One of the unrealized projects became the animated anthology Love, Death & Robots on Netflix in 2019.
In 2011 there was a live-action French/UK television series, Metal Hurlant Chronicles which was filmed in English language and eventually appeared in the U.S. on the SyFy Channel. I've only seen the first episode and it seemed like a lower-budget Lexx. In each episode the Metal Hurlant, a screaming asteroid, flies through the scene of an unrelated anthology scenario, signalling something bad is about to happen.