At 39, Heavy Metal is still a stoner comedy extraordinaire
When Heavy Metal was released in 1981, no less an entity than Variety called it a “classy anthology.” Anthology, yes; classy, no. I seriously doubt that any of the movie’s many fans (of which I am one) would confuse its adolescent, retro charm with class. To understand that, maybe you’d need a brief course in Heavy Metal 101. The magazine Heavy Metal, first published in 1977 by the same house that gave you National Lampoon, was an Americanized version of the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant. The American version did publish international artists (often in amusingly awkward translations), some of whom, like Moebius and Guido Crepax, really did aspire to and achieve Heavy Metal’s stated goal of “adult fantasy.” However, the magazine also devoted itself more and more to routine adventure stories with T&A and gore; some of the stuff was like a softcore version of Conan or your choice of Marvel comic.
Not surprisingly, the major-motion-picture version of Heavy Metal — produced by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, featuring voices by Harold Ramis, John Candy, and Joe Flaherty (all six of whom had a hit that same summer with Stripes) — is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Whenever possible, it goes for the fight scene, the sex joke, the jiggly breasts, and, in one case, drug humor (in the form of two aliens who snort up ropelike lines of cocaine, like an extraterrestrial Cheech & Chong). The movie’s secret, I think — what makes it so beloved, instead of a largely forgotten failure like its contemporaries Rock and Rule or Fire and Ice (though those movies have their cult followings) — is that it generally doesn’t take itself very seriously; essentially, it’s a comedy. It presents the standard adolescent power fantasies, but with a nudge and a wink.
Take “Den,” for instance. As originally conceived by Richard Corben, it was more or less a straight Conan rip-off. Adapted for the movie, it becomes a two-tiered satire in which Dan, a dorky teenager (voiced by John Candy), gets magically whisked away to another dimension, where he finds himself made over into a beefy bald warrior named Den, great in battle and even better in the sack. Though Candy also does Den’s gruff voice (“Where is the girl?”, etc.), he continues to do Dan’s dorky voice in narration, sounding goggle-eyed in awe over his excellent adventure. Den’s chief adversary is an obvious swishy stereotype, your usual decadent king who has a buxom queen but probably doesn’t look at her very often (which is why she falls so readily into bed with Den, one assumes); but he’s also been given an amusing New York inflection in which, say, “die” becomes “doy” — “She doys, you doy, everybody doys.” Odd little touches like that connect this world with that of Ralph Bakshi.
Bakshi’s influence can also be felt in “Harry Canyon,” the movie’s first story, prepared by scripters Blum and Goldberg for the film — it’s one of three tales not derived from anything that appeared in the magazine. That’s not to say it isn’t derivative, though; it’s a clearcut film noir homage, complete with hard-boiled narration by the eponymous taxi-driving hero (voiced by Richard Romanus, who did a lot of work for Bakshi’s urban toons), an obese gangster who wants something the hero has, a femme fatale — what we have here is a cyberpunk remix of The Maltese Falcon.
The McGuffin here, though, is a mysterious glowing green ball that figures in all the segments, representing the undying force of evil. The ball (called the Loc-Nar in “Den” and “Harry Canyon”) seems to corrupt or destroy anyone who comes into contact with it; the ball, in fact, is telling the stories we’re watching. The movie begins with an astronaut coming down to Earth in a white convertible (this is unquestionably one of the coolest opening scenes in film history); the astronaut enters a house and greets a little girl, showing her a green ball he’s brought back for her. The ball, expectedly, disintegrates the poor astronaut and backs the terrified girl up against a wall, gloating over how powerful it is, and we occasionally return to the house so that the ball can gloat some more and set up another story.
The ball, and the evil it embodies, seem to have the least to do with the penultimate segment, “So Beautiful, So Dangerous,” based on an Angus McKie story. This is the one with the two doper aliens, as well as a horny robot and a buxom redhead (there are no flat chests in the Heavy Metal universe). True to the artist it’s adapting, the segment is entertaining but meandering, arriving at a stop without actually having arrived at a point — it represents the magazine at its most self-indulgent. A much tighter tale, with perhaps the movie’s best animation, is the preceding segment, Dan O’Bannon’s “B-17.” In 1981, Creepshow had not yet come out, so “B-17” was the first time in years that movie audiences got a taste of the ghastly EC Comics of the ’50s. When you watch this segment, which is chillingly well done (it concerns a bomber full of dead airmen who become zombies), you may laugh and realize that the movie’s creators are determined to take us through the history of disreputable pulp comics — or as much as they can in 90 minutes. Given Dan O’Bannon’s best-known films (Alien, which he wrote, and Return of the Living Dead, which he wrote and directed), the segment also functions as a best-of-O’Bannon in miniature.
The ball also doesn’t have a lot to do with “Captain Sternn” (based on a story by comics legend Bernie Wrightson), though it seems to at first. An openly parodic treatment of the typical big-jawed space-cowboy hero (the titular character looks pretty noble to us until we hear the long list of charges brought against him, of which he’s apparently guilty as sin), this segment also benefits from the best timing, comic and otherwise, of any story in the film. The confident Sternn’s dialogue with his worried lawyer (“The best we can hope for is that you’ll get a secret burial so’s they can’t defile your body!” “I told you, Charlie … I got an angle”) has the back-and-forth rhythm of classic stage comedy (Eugene Levy was the voice of Sternn, Joe Flaherty is his lawyer), and when Sternn’s “star witness” Hanover Fiste morphs into a psychotic hulk there’s a terrific sequence when he corners Sternn, slamming the walls on either side of him into tatters as he walks.
The final, longest sequence is “Taarna,” which may be taken as a refutation of the decidedly pre-feminist women (damsels in distress, whores, bitches, bimbos) who have populated the rest of the movie. Taarna, a mute warrior, seeks revenge on the evil hordes (corrupted by the ball, what else?) that decimated her people. This is the segment that should have been called “So Beautiful, So Dangerous,” but never mind. Being one of the movie’s few characters to be rotoscoped from a live model (a favorite Bakshi technique), Taarna moves with considerably more grace than anyone else in the film. The movie seems to genuinely respect her, and when she’s captured and nude, waiting to be whipped by her nemesis, the scene ends before it can satisfy any whip devotees in the audience. Ironically, the “Whip It” boys themselves, Devo, appear in a tavern sequence here, performing “Through Being Cool.” The soundtrack by itself is worth owning, ranging from the popular (Cheap Trick, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult) to the obscure (Riggs, Nazareth, Trust).
It’s fitting, in a perverse way, that this boy’s-club confection of wanking, winking softcore pulp should end on a dual note of female empowerment. I think that without “Taarna,” the movie would seem much shallower; the elegance of the final sequence restores some balance. “See,” the movie is saying, “women can kick ass too, and do all the stuff you saw Den doing before.” (Significantly, she doesn’t have sex. It might’ve been too much to ask in 1981 for the moviemakers to create a sexual woman who could still kick ass. It’s often still too much to ask.) After all, the movie doesn’t climax with the adolescent power trip “Den” — it ends with “Taarna.” (And technically it begins with Taarna, too, if the ending is any indication.) When the movie was released, there were two ad design concepts floating around: a Corben painting of the muscles-on-top-of-muscles Den (and his woman kneeling at his feet), and a triumphant portrait of Taarna riding her endearing giant bird-creature. Guess which design was adopted for the soundtrack cover, the re-release poster art, and the home-video cover art.