Heavy Metal: A Retrospective

Nothing could go wrong!

And for once, nothing did, as the greatest fantasy writers and artists met head-on with the Canadian born film-making magic of Ivan Reitman (whom – presumably in another life – had produced ‘Shivers’ & ‘Rabid’ and directed ‘Ghostbusters’).

As early as 1979, Len Mogel (founder of ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘National Lampoon’ magazines) had begun making enquiries into the possibility of bringing his massive project to the screen. And by the summer of that same year, director Gerald Potterton was at work on budgeting and scheduling the ‘Heavy Metal’ film project.

In the early stages, several talents were called upon to write a marketable film script, including Harry Harrison, Richard Corben, Berni Wrightson, Angus McKie and Dan O’Bannon. Many of these names were successful artists and designers responsible for the original magazine material, and so this new project must have provided a pleasant dose of deja-vu.

As things progressed into a linear production running from eight individual stories, the following emerged from the plethora of rewrites and eliminations: Corben’s “Den”, Wrightson’s “Captain Sternn”, O’Bannon’s “Soft Landing” and McKie “So Beautiful and So Dangerous”, together with original concepts for “Gremlins”, “Harry Canyon”, “Legend of Taarna” and the link – “Grimaldi”.

Phew! Let’s look at each one separately…

Soft Landing – A 1959 Corvette makes it’s way to Earth to the grinding tones of “Radar Rider” by Riggs. Call it surreal, or call it psychedelic, it is certainly an impressive start, and so we are led into the link story… Grimaldi. A house, a girl and a glowing green ball – the ball threatens, but does no harm, and slowly unravels it’s purpose, granting wishes and dreams, or nightmares (depending on the worthiness of the person). The green fades to a brilliantly lit neon city, and…

…the next segment. Meet Harry Canyon – A New York cab-driver of the 21st century. The New York of tomorrow is degenerate, filled with poverty and violence. This was the look that Juan Gimenez (the Argentinian illustrator) used, so as not to contrast with the New York of today – a statement maybe? And, as I make a habit of not talking about the plot too much when reviewing, I will leave it at that…

Next, an amusing reconstruction of the hero legend. Corben’s Den character comes to life in the shape of Dan, a small boy who is transformed into the title character by the Lochnar (the green ball from Grimaldi). What follows is a hilarious take on the sword-and-sorcery cliché, as Den is almost killed a number of times, throughout which events the boy narrates with the voice of the warrior.

As we leave Den to save the world, a courtroom scene opens and a certain Captain Sternn is on trial for a number of hideously obscene crimes. Until, that is, his defense shows up in the form of a feeble little twerp called Hanover Fiste. This ‘saving grace’ turns against the captain as the Lochnar once again goes about it’s work… Fiste metamorphoses into an outrageously powerful caricature of muscle, and wreaks havoc throughout the ship! Berni Wrightson’s comic strip was used as a model sheet for the directors as they refined the storyboard into the allotted time. What emerges is a surprisingly violent but ultimately hollow experience that should have been a lot funnier than it was.

Gremlins (official title B-17) was a rather strange and unsettling addition, as you aren’t really that sure what’s going on, other than that the Lochnar (yet again) is possessing the dead pilots of a battle torn B-17 bomber. After this, O’Bannon’s story gets a little bit confused, but the design (by Mike Ploog) is nothing short of inspired.

So Beautiful And So Dangerous begins in a conference room filled with the world’s press and politicians, all trying to allay their fears of alien world domination. A Pentagon secretary is possessed and jumps on a lady stenographer. Both are then unceremoniously sucked into a giant ‘globe’ ship. Only the woman survives and is then bedded by an amoral robot, as the ship spirals through space piloted by a duo of coke-sniffing aliens?!!? A brilliant premise that is the funniest segment so far: “Good landing, man…”. But the best is yet to come.

And come it does (sic), in the luscious shape of Taarna, a female barbarian warrior who is called upon to save a race from the murderous machinations of a band of cut-throats and their barbaric leader. Soon we are led into a desolate but fantastic world of stark temples and endless skeletal vistas, and of course Taarna, as she glides gracefully across this barbaric landscape.

It took no less than three artists to finish the designs for Taarna (J.S.Goert, Chris Achilleos and Howard Chaykin). The sets and monuments are superbly majestic, my personal favourite being Taarna’s temple where she dresses – can it be possible to be in love with a cartoon character?

What this amounts to is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with more than it’s fair share of heroic bloodshed, as Taarna decapitates the clientele of a rather rough bar and is subjected to torture and humiliation at the hands of the blood-crazed Barbarian. One of the techniques used was rotoscoping (using a live actress to mimic the movements the character would use) – I found this slowed down the movements considerably, in turn giving them a more dream-like, fantastic quality than is found in the other stories.

So, in conclusion, there’s got to be something here to grasp the imagination of even the most boring and braindead members of the human race. ‘Heavy Metal’ got an “AA” certificate on it’s original cinema release, but was never – to my knowledge – released on video in the UK. This is sacrilege – it’s such a mind-blowing piece of artistry that I can’t imagine it losing money on either rental or sell-through. If you do manage to get hold of a foreign release, spread the word!

Sadly, there is not the much merchandise presently available, but any collector should be able to hunt down at least a few of the following:

  • The Art of the Movie Heavy Metal:Animation for the 80’s published by New York Zoetrope, 80 E.11th Street, N.Y.
  • Heavy Metal Music from the motion picture – CBS Records.
  • Starburst #41: ‘Heavy Metal’ movie review and centrespread.