Friday, February 18, 2011

Heavy Metal (1981)
--- science fiction/ fantasy/ horror

Dir: Gerald Potterton

Fond memories of teenage years (though I wasn't one when this was released), "Heavy Metal" is a cult classic of the highest proportions. It is at once a collaborative, rebellious, raucous work of art toiled over a span of years and countries. For many an American GenX teenager, "Heavy Metal" holds an interesting fond place in our hearts. It was made in a time where animation was deliberately taking risks with more adult fare in cinemas like Ralph Bakshi's x-rated "Fritz the Cat", the dark age of Disney films, even "Transformers: The Movie" dared to kill off Optimus Prime.

National Lampoon magazine had bought North American distribution rights to a French magazine named Métal Hurlant ( translated roughly "screaming metal"). Renamed Heavy Metal, the magazine started in the 1970s and blended everything from dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, and oh yes erotica. Artists from all over the globe contributed their own stories and artwork such as H.R. Giger, Richard Corben, Moebius, and many many more. At this time, National Lampoon magazine saw the success on the big screen with a spinoff film "National Lampoon's Animal House" and it wasn't long before the idea to make a film based on Heavy Metal came to fruition. Produced by Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman, the film was to be animated by artists from France, Canada, the United States. The idea to make the film an anthology cemented the highly collaborative and unique hodgepodge style of Heavy Metal Magazine, as they adapt popular strips from that were featured in the magazine, as well as creating some new stories.

The title sequence opens with a story by late screenwriter Dan O'Bannon called "Soft Landing" which shows us an astronaut descending to earth in a 1960 corvette. This basically bridges the titles to the framing story of the film "Grimaldi", where we find the identity of the astronaut as Grimaldi coming home to his young daughter. He's also brought home a glowing green orb in a box. The orb ends up killing the Grimaldi as his daughter looks upon it in fear, just as the orb presents himself as "the sum of all evils." Called the Loc-Nar, the orb begins to show her the following tales in the film.

Based on Spanish artist Juan Giménez's "Harry Canyon", this vignette takes place in a dystopian New York City in the year 2031, focusing on the cynical taxicab driver, Canyon, who narrates. Inspired by a film noir, he reluctantly gets involved with the daughter of a scientist who has unearthed the mysterious Loc-Nar. When he is gunned down by a Casper Gutman-esque gangster, the girl is on the run and Canyon is in the wrong place at the right time. Helping her out, the daughter bargains with Canyon to give the Loc-Nar up to the gangster and split the spoils with him. In the end, Canyon realizes he should've never got involved in the first place. This piece has been highly influential, as you have seen many dystopian futurescapes since, in films such as "Blade Runner" or "The Fifth Element"; they have their genesis here.

The next segment (probably my favorite) is based on Richard Corben's popular strip "Den". Voiced by John Candy, nerdy teen Dan, finds the Loc-Nar and experiments with it for his own personal science project. During a lightning storm this inevitably teleports him to another dimension where he becomes a beefy bald grown man. Now as Den, he espies a group of cultists sacrifice a well-endowed young woman to a god called "Uhluhtc" ("Cthulhu" spelled backwards). After a safe rescue, she tells Den she's in reality Katherine Wells from the British colony of Gibraltar. Soon monster minions of Ard interrupt the couple's sexual acquaintanceship. They are brought to Ard, an effete immortal who puts Katherine in suspended animation and forces Den to steal the Loc-Nar from the Queen who tried to sacrifice Katherine in the first place. Den and Ard's beastly henchmen must infiltrate the Queen's palace and ultimately rescue Katherine. This is actually the second appearance of the character Den in animation. He originally appeared in a 1968 self-produced animated short called "Neverwhere" by creator Richard Corben himself. The backgrounds of this piece live up to the Corben art style, but the art (outside of the gratuitous nudity) don't capture Corben's thick pock oiled art much at all.

The next vignette is a comedic trip into outer space with Bernie Wrightson's classic ne'erdowell "Captain Sternn". We catch up to Lincoln F. Sternn on trial for a laundry list of violations against the law. Sternn insinuates that his attorney that he has an "angle". That angle turns out to be his witness for the defence, a scrawny guy named Hanover Fiste who soon transforms into a hulking brute who chases after Sternn. Turns out, in the end, Sternn really does have an angle. There was supposed to be a segment between this and the following one called "Neverwhereland" by animator Corny Cole which showed the Loc-nar landing on prehistoric earth and being responsible for all the evils throughout time. This was deleted for time management, but can be seen on the dvd.

"B-17" is basically a short EC Comics style horror tale involving a bomber pilot and his crew, when after perishing in a gun fight, suddenly become undead. This one was written by Dan O'Bannon and was originally to showcase a pilot against gremlins. The next segment is another comedic tale called "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" based on Angus McKie's story which first appeared in the October 1978 issue. This one is about an alien spacecraft abducting humans, and a very sentient robot putting the moves on a woman. This sequence is purely played for laughs before taking us into the final piece.

"Taarna" is an original story based loosely on French artist's Jean 'Moebius' Giraud comic strip "Arzach" which first showed up in the pages of Métal Hurlant in 1974. This tale begins with the Loc-Nar crashing into a volcano. The natives nearby are overcome by the Loc-Nar lava, but are mutated into vicious barbarians and as they go out to destroy a peaceful village. The village elders desperately seek their last refuge in summoning the lone survivor of a warrior race called, the Taarakians. They summon Taarna, a silent beautiful young woman equipped to avenge the peaceful race and seek out and destroy the ruthless mutants responsible. She heads out with her pterodactyl to the mountains to put an end to the mutants tyranny, and comes face to face with the source of the evil; the Loc-Nar. The film ultimately ties up with the revelation that this whole frame story with Grimaldi's daughter is tied to Taarna.

"Heavy Metal" is really an animated adult fantasy to end all adult fantasies. There really hasn't been any equal, and more than likely, will never be. Though a sequel was made years later, it still lacked the brash vision of this film. The fantastic score is provided by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, in what many of his fans proclaim is actually the absolute finest film score he ever did. The needle-dropped soundtrack is anything but in the genre of heavy metal, but peppered with soft rock and prog rock performers. The only real metal in the film is from Black Sabbath. Overseen by Ivan Reitman, you can see his influence throughout the film. Besides hiring composer, Elmer Bernstein, he made sure plenty of Second City performers got work in this. Not just in voice acting, but it almost seems the visuals were inspired by performers like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis. For further confirmation watch a double feature of this film and "Ghostbusters" back-to-back and view the similarities, especially in the climatic cityhall scene of GB and the press conference scene in the segment "So Beautiful, So Deadly". Currently, there is a live-action Métal Hurlant tv series airing in France apparently under the name "Metal Howling" or "Heavy Metal Chronicles". News also confirms that directors David Fincher, James Cameron, and Guillermo Del Toro plan to produce a new live action anthology film.