Suburban Grindhouse Memories No. 57:
A Universe of Aliens, Dragons, and Boobs…
By Nick Cato
While most young men got their kicks by swiping a copy of Playboy from their dad’s secret stash in the closet, nothing brought me more joy than an issue of HEAVY METAL, the illustrated fantasy magazine that has been going strong since its first issue in 1977. And in 1977 or ‘78 (when I was in the fifth grade) I managed to obtain an issue and was instantly hooked. But it wasn’t just the sex and violence that grabbed my attention; many of the stories were just so much better than what you found in “regular” comic books, and I was familiar with some of the artists and writers whose work appeared within its pages, even at my young age.
Needless to say, I was beyond psyched when I learned HEAVY METAL was going to be adapting several of its more popular stories into an animated film. After what seemed like an eternity, August of 1981 arrived, and a Saturday afternoon trip to the (now defunct) Hylan Twin Cinema left my buddies and me a bit nervous: sure, this was an animated film, but it was rated R and we weren’t sure if the Hylan would let us in (this was one month before I started the 7th grade!). But the space gods shined their light upon us and we walked right in…apparently they were too busy turning people away from their other feature, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. Go figure.
The film opens with an astronaut returning to earth via intergalactic sports car in a segment titled ‘Soft Landing.’ The blaring soundtrack (that’s not all heavy metal bands) kicks into high gear with the song ‘Radar Rider’ by some band called Riggs, who to this day I’m still in the dark on who they are. The whole look and feel of the animation brought several stories from the magazine to life, and my blood was pumping like crazy. The man then walks into his house, and the film’s inter-locking story, ‘Grimaldi,’ begins. Grimaldi has brought his daughter home a green sphere, which then proceeds to melt him to the bone before introducing itself to the terrified girl as “The Sum of all Evils.” The sphere then goes on to show the girl several stories of good vs. evil throughout the universe, with itself involved in each one.
The first tale, ‘Harry Canyon,’ is a neo-noir tale set in a distant Manhattan about a cabbie-anti-hero who gets involved with protecting a famous scientist’s daughter from criminals. I think this is the first time I saw animated sex on the big screen, and at the time it was a real hoot! Kudos for the gore level here, too. (NOTE: to this day I am convinced the screenwriters of THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997) robbed this hook, line, and sinker). A great opening story and one of the best in the film.
Next up is ‘Den,’ based on Richard Corben’s famous character, who is a nerdy teenager, transported to another world where he becomes a bald-headed, muscle-bound hero. The film does a great job bringing Den to life, and John Candy’s voice works well as both versions of the quirky character. As soon as Den lands on this strange new world, he witness a sacrifice to a Cthulhu-like creature, and before long he’s battling crazed religious zealots and having sex with big-breasted women. Yeah…they pretty much nailed the magazine with this one!
I was all too happy to see one of my favorite Bernie Wrightson stories from the magazine make the film: ‘Captain Stern’ is a short but sweet tale of a corrupt starship captain in a courtroom full of weird aliens as all kinds of charges are brought to him. The green sphere happens to be in the hands of the court ship’s janitor, turning him into a Hulk-like maniac who then goes after Stern (and kills most of the ship’s occupants). Crazy little segment, highlighted by Cheap Trick’s great, seldom-heard song ‘Reach Out.’ The crowd loved this one, too.
Next up is a genuinely creepy EC-comics type of tale titled ‘B-17.’ A B-17 bomber is taking heavy damage from enemies (in space!) but the crew manages to get through. When the co-pilot goes to check his men, he finds them all dead and notices the green sphere following the plane. The sphere turns the dead crew members into zombies, and only the main pilot escapes onto a plane-graveyard island. But what awaits him is anything but safety. It was nice to see one horror-oriented story here, even if it didn’t have the best plot.
‘So Beautiful and so Dangerous’ is the weirdest piece here, about a scientist trying to talk to the Pentagon about a series of strange mutations that have been showing up across the United States. He goes crazy when he notices the green sphere attached to the cute stenographer’s necklace. But just as he attempts to rape her in front of the entire Pentagon personnel, a huge space ship lowers a tube into the room and sucks the two of them upward. The scientist’s body explodes while the stenographer, Gloria, loses her clothes and soon has sex with the ship’s mini-robot. Meanwhile, two Cheech and Chong-like alien pilots are sniffing more cocaine than you’ve even seen before and partying like maniacs as they attempt to land aboard a humongous space station. I still don’t know what the point of this one was, but it’s hysterical and ridiculously entertaining.
The film ends with a serious (and its longest) segment titled, ‘Taarna.’ The green sphere has now become gigantic and crashes into a volcano, where it mutates a bunch of outcast workers into a vengeful gang, bent on taking over a nearby peaceful city. They kill everyone inside…but the elders manage to summon the last of a warrior race (the Taarakians) to come help them. Taarna (a beautiful but tough-as-nails swordswoman who doesn’t waste time talking) arrives too late to save the city, but goes on a bloody course of Conan-style revenge with her pet dragon. (The sequel, HEAVY METAL 2000, was basically a 90-minute remake of ‘Taarna’ with heavier music). The scene of the workers being swallowed by green lava while Black Sabbath’s ‘E5150/Mob Rules’ plays in the background is a real site to see/hear. Taarna is standard sword and sorcery fare, but well done, and with great animation.
In the brief epilogue, the young girl from earlier in the film witnesses the green sphere (or “Loc Nar”) explode and destroy her home. She then goes outside and finds a dragon similar to Taarna’s, and takes off into the moonlight.
HEAVY METAL still holds up well all these years later, and while I’ve enjoyed it on cable and VHS (and DVD), this is one film that truly needs to be seen on the big screen to enjoy all its nuances, and with the proper sound system to appreciate it’s killer soundtrack (the soundtrack album still sells well today). The packed theater I witnessed this with featured countless cheering teenagers, moms dumb enough to take their young kids (uncomfortable giggling was heard at each and every sex scene), and fans of the magazine like myself who went back the next day for a second viewing. Too bad the long-awaited sequel was so sub-par; I wish they would’ve done another anthology film like this, with other tales that had appeared in the magazine.
As far as animated cult films go, I’ll take HEAVY METAL over FRITZ THE CAT (1972) any day.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato