When analyzing or criticizing animated feature films, it’s important to keep three factors in mind:
- The talent
- The resources
- The date of production and release
Inconsistency in quality of animation is not necessarily a negative. Starchaser: Legend of Orin has consistent animation, yet it still stinks on ice. (A Down And) Dirty Duck, despite its cribbing from Bobby London, attains a sort of weird cohesiveness from the varying quality of its visuals. When deconstructing the 1970s films of Ralph Bakshi, one must take into account the limitations of an independent production, and appreciate the few feats he pulled off successfully. He worked with Frank Frazetta for Fire & Ice, and Hey Good Lookin’ only gets bolder and more unique with age. Bakshi’s excess often counterbalances his hasty technique.
That’s the key: balance. Not every production can be Watership Down. I consider The Transformers: The Movie one of the greatest animated movies of all time. If you watch it in high-definition or Blu-Ray, which I do not recommend, you will undoubtedly notice line errors, and sequences where the animation runs at a considerably lower frame rate, like the scientists walking to the table in the very beginning. When the action begins, the animation is smooth and aglow. You were never meant to watch it in high-definition- you were meant to see it projected on a giant drive-in screen, so all the motion flows together thanks to the process.
I’m not kidding. There were tricks and “English” in animation from the 40s to the 80s, to compensate for how long the image takes to hit the canvas. An absent frame here and there would go unnoticed by the human eye, because of the normal acclimation to watching frames projected in sequence at great size. This is why those of us who grew up seeing cartoons in theaters quit doing so after a point, and why I screamed obscenities in the Midtown Art when they screened Destino. The ratio decalibrated, sometimes subjecting us to chunk-chunk-chunka visuals. Some of us get cluster migraines, stumble into the lobby and start a donnybrook, like a baffled kangaroo.
Heavy Metal, from 1981, should ideally be viewed on a looming drive-in screen, from a dirty vehicle, on a sloppy, awkward double date, three beers deep, with kids running around unattended, their Keds kicking up clouds of lot dust. The sound should be emanating from a tinny speaker, so the voices are loud and the music is either rockin’ or spooky.
Watching Heavy Metal in high-def and quality stereo is like putting on your best tuxedo to eat a loaded chili dog. It’s inappropriate, makes you look square, and goes against the spirit of the object in question.
In many ways, I consider Heavy Metal to be an “aesthetically perfect object”; it’s self-contained, can be appreciated by a broad variety of people, and makes a clear opening statement of its genre. It was intended as the world’s introduction to Heavy Metal magazine, borne of France’s beloved Metal Hurlant, and it features several key characters and creators.
Its shortcomings are far outbalanced by its positives and innovations.
Like the magazine, the film is an anthology. This allowed different teams of animators to work in concert, so the movie could be produced in a less-glacial manner.
In the early 80s, a science-fiction movie had to open with a mysterious object moving through deep space. If not, how would anyone know it was science-fiction? Or post-Star Wars?
In Heavy Metal’s case, the object is the Loc-Nar, a green globe that embodies the sum of all evil.
A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path, and death will come from the skies.
The title logo emerges as if to threaten Kubrick’s monolith, burning blue at its edges, with a sound so deafening it is audible in space. It’s rotoscoped, so it looks larger than life, and more than impressive.
The score is Elmer Bernstein, a composer so brilliant that even though his soundtracks for Animal House, American Werewolf In London and Trial of Billy Jack contain similar motifs, he rarely sounds like he’s repeating himself. An Elmer Bernstein score makes a movie a MOVIE! Boldface, in capital letters, blasting out from a blinding marquee. Thrills in audio form.
The spooky theme you hear takes prominence in a later segment, and in high school, I had the worst nightmare of my life to this music. This movie isn’t just sci-fi: it’s sci-fi horror.
Weird Tales, EC comics, you get the idea. Creepshow flirted with the same era, pretty decently, I might add. Fables that don’t end well for the protagonists. The inherent weirdness of the vast unknown.
Like a space shuttle deploying a Corvette, while hard rock kicks in, in Dolby stereo.
The song is “Radar Rider” by Riggs, and truthfully, it’s one of the best on the soundtrack, even now. It fuckin’ rips. Jerry Riggs sounds phenomenal on vocals and guitar, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a legend in Atlanta. The bass is heart-pounding. “Heartbeat”, the other Riggs tune in the film, plays in the “Harry Canyon” segment coming up, but it’s more down-tempo (still rocks, though).
Before that, the Corvette safely weathers re-entry, parachuting into a cornfield, and driving to a remote Victorian house. It sets the tone for the movie, in that reality takes a literal back-seat to fantasy. The astronaut enters the creepy old house, removing his helmet, revealing his perfectly 1980s-cartoon face.
He’s got square glasses, graying temples, and a card sharp’s mustache. This guy would easily fit in on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or G.I. Joe.
His spoiled white daughter runs downstairs, apparently from a cartoon adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, and asks the same question any kid would ask upon their dad’s return from outer space:
“What did you bring me?”
She comes to regret this stupid query, as her father opens a strange suitcase, revealing the Loc-Nar, which disintegrates him. The strange orb corners the girl, explaining what it is, and how it must destroy her before she does the same to it, in the future.
Here’s some invalid criticisms that come in around this time:
The girl’s face changes with her expressions.
It’s called animators being expressive with the wordless portrayal of fear. You can literally see her gorge rise in terror.
All the girl does is scream and cower.
That’s the point, she’s a terrified child. This is crucial to her later transformation.
The orb looks like it trying to go up the girl’s dress.
No one cares. It’s supposed to be pure evil.
The Loc-Nar begins to tell tales of its evil, which spans all eras and generations. For whatever reason, the voice of the Loc-Nar is uncredited; it’s the one-in-a-billion intonation of Percy Rodriguez. His vocal work in Heavy Metal is the equal or superior of James Earl Jones’ in Star Wars. He sounds like horror and evil beyond imagining, from the days of The Shadow, and Inner Sanctum.
The Loc-Nar’s first tale is of Harry Canyon, a cabbie in a future NYC where the UN building is low-rent housing.
A terrific Blue Oyster Cult track, “Veteran Of Psychic Wars”, plays over the excavation of the terrible orb, which messily obliterates an innocent digger. We cut to an establishing shot of future NYC, right as the guitar solo on Donald Fagen’s “True Companion” kicks in. If you love Steely Dan, that song should already be in your hard drive.
When Harry tries to get the help of the police, the ultimate Stevie Nicks song is playing: “Blue Lamp”. It’s one of the main reasons I paid $13 for a cassette of the Heavy Metal soundtrack in 1992. For a long time, that was the only way you could buy it.
The “Harry Canyon” segment is a good example of the balance I was describing. Truthfully, it’s weak, and relies too heavily on a big-breasted woman who bangs Harry to Journey’s syrupy “Open Arms”. She’s an imbecile, only there for tit shots, and she mounts Harry after the dude makes the most disgusting sandwich outside of a Bakshi movie. She pours out her story, while Harry squirts so much yellow-white goop onto his Dagwood it oozes out the sides. Then, as he eats, he talks with his mouth full, spitting crumbs everywhere. I guess all this is to make clear how far this woman is willing to go for protection.
The girl’s naked breasts and body are partially rotoscoped, and there’s even a close-up of Harry fingering her nipple as they plow. This isn’t just bold for 1981, it’s bold for today. Even the sequel doesn’t approach this level of animated intimacy and overt petting.
But here’s the thing; in 1981, just seeing Harry Canyon do his zapper thing in the trailer was a real draw. And it’s the best part of the sequence; Harry flips a cover open with his foot, steps on a button, and the Loc-Narish device behind his car seat vaporizes the fare. I saw that in 1981, and learned the meaning of “intrigued”. (I was not permitted to see this film and had to scrounge a VHS dubbed off of Cinemax, with the wobbly-spooled final act. If Cinemax was your source for this film, you know what I mean.)
Harry is played by Richard Romanus, who not coincidentally provided the lead voice in Bakshi’s Hey Good Lookin’. His brother is Robert. You know him as Damone.
“Harry Canyon” segues, through the evil green orb, to “Den”, based on the comics of Richard Corben. It’s also important to keep in mind that none of this “sword and sorcery” stuff was cliche in 1981- it was new. It was very popular, too, which teamed with its cheapness to make it a cliche, in a few short years.
You can trace elements of He-Man, Battle Beasts and Sectaurs back to “Den”. The beloved John Candy provides the voice of the narrator, a boy geek who passes into a parallel world and becomes a muscleman (also Candy). This is due to his experimenting with (of course) the Loc-Nar, which is a coveted object among the transplanted humans of “Neverwhere”. Not long after arrival, Den rescues another huge-breasted woman, also originally from Earth. Obviously, they pork, but only after Den removes the thread that protects the woman’s genitals from the harsh environment.
Katherine, the woman, has areolas that look like sunflowers. Armed monsters interrupt their public rutting, capture them, and bring Den before the hilariously campy Ard. Den is forced to steal the Loc-Nar from the Queen for Ard, who has Katherine encased in glass for some reason. The Queen has giant boobies, so Den bangs her too, before she realizes his plan and becomes psychotic. Everything culminates in a battle at the summoning of the dark god Uhluhtc (Cthulhu spelled backwards), when the indestructible Ard cuts loose on the Queen:
“Stupid bitch, you’ll ruin everything! Gimme the Loc-Nar, it’s mine. It’s MY LOC-NAR!”
If not for “Captain Sternn”, that would be the funniest part of the whole movie.
John Candy does a great job with the voices of Dan and Den, and the backgrounds are lavishly painted, with skies that become psychedelic swirls of colored oils, like a Jefferson Airplane concert. I would prefer that you did not complain about the bust size of the women featured in this segment. To deny them is to deny the existence of women like Leanne Crow. If you think the media is kind about the bodies of all females, you’ve never loved a large-breasted woman in your life. If you’ve been one, you already know the scorn of which I speak.
Now comes the “Captain Sternn” segment; truthfully, this one has the next-best animation. It’s based on Bernie Wrightson’s characters, with Eugene Levy as the titular captain, and John Vernon as a court prosecutor reading his endless list of charges. Sternn has paid off an acquaintance, Hanover Fiste, to lie for him on the witness stand.
Before taking the stand, Fiste came across a familiar green marble on the floor of the space station. This of course is ol’ Loc-Nar again, and as Fiste perjures himself to help Sternn, he slowly transforms into a muscle-bound brute, Elmer Bernstein’s score rising in aural horror.
I have a lot of backstory with this scene. I used the “preschoolers prostitute ring” line in John’s Arm: Armageddon, as a reference to herald the coming of Didja-Catch-That-Guy. I love to impersonate Fiste’s final words before attacking Sternn, and I once used it as an answering machine message in the 1990s:
“STERNN! HE’S NOTHIN’ BUT A LOW-DOWN, DOUBLE-DEALIN’, BACK-STABBIN’, LARCENIST PERVERTED WORM. HANGIN’S TOO GOOD FOR HIM! BURNIN’S TOO GOOD FOR HIM! HE SHOULD BE TORN INTO LITTLE BITSY PIECES, AND BURIED ALIIIIVE! I’LL KILL HIM! KILL! KILL!”
That bravura vocal performance there? Rodger Bumpass. Yes, that’s really his name, and yes, he is really the voice of Squidward on SpongeBob SquarePants. TALENT WITH A TALL “T”.
“Reach Out” by Cheap Trick ramps up on the audio, as Sternn (and Beezer, a floating precursor to Orko and just about any other character of that type you could name) run from Fiste through the vast space station. Sternn outsmarts Fiste, who is reduced to his namesake in space, still clutching the precious Loc-Nar.
You didn’t realize it, but you fell asleep here, and started having a truly terrifying nightmare.
Seriously; you did. “Takin’ A Ride (On Heavy Metal)” begins to play, by Don Felder, original lead guitarist for the Eagles. This is a guy who knew how to make a guitar solo scary, like “Witchy Woman”.
A B-17 bomber takes heavy fire during WWII. The co-pilot exits the cockpit to check on the crew, and finds the fuselage shot to pieces. The navigator, voiced by Zal Yanovsky, is in similar shape. Yanovsky was one of the founders of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
This scene takes its time and doesn’t care how badly it scares you. It’s meant to be watched under a bedsheet. By the time the co-pilot spots the Loc-Nar trailing the plane, the hair on your arms should be standing at full attention. The globe makes contact, turning the dead soldiers into horrific zombies.
The bit with the belly-gunner is legend. I hear those screams in my sleep. Everything from here until the following segment is pure Nightmare Fuel. Staging a horror scene with living actors is one thing; the combined efforts of painters, artists, animators and an orchestra is quite another. This is the cover of Iron Maiden’s Aces High, come to life; and then some. It will scare the living shit out of you.
When the pilot parachutes onto the island, you can clearly hear the theme I’ve been rambling about. That’s the one that scored my worst nightmare 30+ years ago.
The pilot’s tortured screams crossfade with a beeping computer readout, revealing a truly impressive wireframe of the Pentagon building. This is “So Beautiful And So Dangerous”, based on the comics of Angus McKie, and the best-animated sequence of the final film.
This is another sci-fi sex farce, with spaceships, aliens, a robot, and a big-titted woman. It’s very indicative of the outre fantasy style popular in the 1980s, and it’s a lot of fun if you don’t scrutinize its ethics too closely. Depending on whom you watch it with, the bit where the robot doctor mauls the buxom stenographer is either hilarious, or humiliating. I think it’s hilarious- he’s clearly administering an unwanted belly-fart, or “zrbt” (in Cosby parlance).
The stenographer is abducted aboard a gigantic, spherical ship that resembles a smiley face. The crew is two burnout alien pilots (one of whom is Harold Ramis), and a small robot (John Candy again). As the girl is brought on board through a series of tubes, another Cheap Trick song that doesn’t suck plays (“You Must Be Dreamin'”). Actually, the song does suck, but not the part used in the film.
Alice Playten, as the stenographer, has to do a kind of Jewish American princess thing after she gets naked, which grates a bit, but was a product of the era. Granted, the circumcision joke is pretty subtle (really). But the beloved highlight of this sequence has to be Ramis and friend going on an insane binge on a cocaine-like drug, before they land (just barely) in an even more massive space station. Don Felder’s “All Of You” plays as the pilots drift into drug-induced euphoria. The animation very successfully conveys both delirium and mass.
Sammy Hagar’s title track plays during the landing sequence, and it works alright, despite the fact that its legalities held up the re-release of the movie until the late 90s. To my knowledge, this song is the reason I had to pay $13 for a cassette if I wanted the soundtrack at all, so it’s always rankled me. All this aside, you are seeing the incredible size of starships, conveyed entirely in ink, paint, and acetate. What exactly does high-definition do for film, anyway?
The final segment of the movie is “Taarna”, featuring the sword-bearing woman from the poster, and the giant bird she rides. It’s inspired by the work of Jean Moebius Giraud, and it looks it, in the color palette and the linework.
There is extensive rotoscoping of aerial footage in the flight scenes, sometimes resorting to photostats, which does draw some criticism. The titular heroine is also rotoscoped, using a model from Toronto named Carole Desbiens with a spectacular body. She is depicted suiting up for battle, with much attention lavished upon her nude form, and the only thing that looks off is the white merkin they painted on her. However, were she shorn, I wouldn’t be writing about this movie at all. It wouldn’t exist.
Setting aside the fact that I’m a heterosexual man born in the early 1970s, this really is the gem of the movie. Taarna doesn’t speak- her emotions are all conveyed in her face and body language. She has a visible affection for her giant bird. The rotoscoping pays off not just in the nudity, but the fight scenes, which are well above average.
DEVO’s “Through Being Cool” provides the backdrop for a nightclub crawling with evil mutants, performed by a DEVO-like band. (Did you notice the badge?) The onslaught of the mutated zealots is accompanied by Black Sabbath’s “Mob Rules”, and it’s so goddamn awesome it’s unbelievable.
The remainder of the film maintains that awesomeness, even in spite of a truncated ending; the explosion of the astronaut’s house was intended to be rotoscoped, but was used as-is when time ran out. I think it looks fine. You can even see where they had to strobe the sequence of the girl running outside. These things happen, and you know what? If you didn’t know about them, you wouldn’t have noticed. The inconsistency fits the spirit and feel of the project. It’s the animation equivalent of “showing your work”.
Included on the DVD is an animatic of a sequence meant to appear between “B-17” and “So Beautiful And So Dangerous”; Cornelius Cole III’s “Neverwhere Land”. If you watch it, your heart will break when you realize how nicely it would have expanded on the Loc-Nar, and its influence upon evil throughout human history.
But some metal is just too heavy.