I saw Heavy Metal for the first time the way a lot of people of the 1980s and 1990s saw it, on late-night cable TV. The very R-rated animated feature, based on the magazine of the same, consisted of several vignettes, wasn’t available in any video rental places thanks to licensing disagreements.
In the early 1990s, I remember I saw it on TBS, heavily edited, on late Saturday night into early Saturday morning. I remember Vampire Hunter D was coming on afterwards but I was already too tired to stay up and watch it all.
I later caught the move at a Movie Gallery or Blockbuster and snatched it off the shelf. I had been looking for this movie for years, too young to understand why it had never been on home video until reading in Entertainment Weekly that the licensing over the music on the soundtrack had been in litigation for many years.
Released on Aug. 7, 1981, the movie featured the voice talents of Roger Bumpass, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis and John Vernon, as well as Douglas Kenney (co-founder of National Lampoon magazine). Kenny had died from a reported fall from a cliff in Hawai’i the year before.
I had just learned about Ralph Bakshi after seeing the atrociously bad Cool World. Disney was finally flying high in the early 1990s. But a decade before, things were hairy for the House of Mouse. Don Bluth had left and taken several animators with him.
I was already used to more edgier animated movies like The Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn. Hell, they used to show Watership Down to us at my elementary school.
But you wouldn’t find Heavy Metal shown, especially after the first 10 minutes when a character, Grimaldi, dies by a brutal death resulting in his insides coming out of his body and his flesh and bone turning to ashes in a matter of seconds. This was a very violent and very crude movie in which big-breasted women were quick to take off their clothes and people’s brains got blown out, heads decapitated and even ripped to shreds.
The whole movie revolves around a glowing powerful green sphere called the Loc-Nar. When the movie opens, Grimaldi is an astronaut coming home in Corvette from space. He opens a container but is killed by the Loc-Nar which comes after his daughter telling her in a loud ominous voice stories with science-fiction, fantasy and horror themes.
The first story involves a New York City taxi driver named Harry Canyon (voiced by Richard Romanus) in the year 2031 as he gets involved with a young and very voluptuous woman whose father was murdered by extraterrestrial thugs.
It has similarities with The Fifth Element, something those who were involved with the movie noticed and mentioned on the behind the scenes featurette .
The second story has a geeky young man, Den (voiced by Candy) finding the Loc-Nar which apparently doesn’t kill him as it has so far, but during a lightning thunderstorm he is transported to a different world where his physique has changed to a very muscled bald man. And he finds himself between an immortal man, Ard, and busty Queen involved in black magic and sorcery using another buxom and nude woman from Earth to sacrifice to god.
The third story focuses more on comedy as the Loc-Nar, now the size of a pebble is discovered in a space station resembling an atom by a lowly worker, Hanover Fiste (voiced by Bumpass) who has been paid off to be a character witness in a court martial of Captain Stern (voiced by Levy), a very corrupt man with some outrageous criminal charges. The Loc-Nar forces Hanover to blurt out the truth before he grows even bigger than Den and chases after Stern.
The fourth story involves the crew of a B-17 bomber during World War II as everyone but the pilots are killed by gunfire or explosions. One of the pilots while checking on the crew notices the Loc-Nar floating in the air coming toward the ship but is knocked unconscious by some equipment when it slams into the airplane. When he wakes up, he is later killed as the Loc-Nar has reanimated the crew as violent zombies. The other pilot is terrorized by them but able to parachute out only to land on an island where more zombies are lurking.
The fifth story deals with a prominent scientist Dr. Anrak (Bumpass) arriving at a Pentagon to discuss a matter of mutants on Earth but both him and a secretary named Gloria, who has the Loc-Nar in her necklace pendant, are abducted when a spaceship arrives overhead. Gloria, like other women, is young and buxom and attracts the eye of a robot (Candy) while two stoner aliens Zeke (Ramis) and Edsel (Levy) get high on a substance called Plutonian Nyborg.
The sixth and final story is Taarna, another buxom and scantily clad warrior who is the last of the Taarakians on another world called upon when the Loc-Nar, now the size of a meteor crashes into a volcano. When a group of curious people go to investigate, a green slime oozes out of the volcano and engulfs them, turning them into evil mutant barbarians. They go and attack a city of peaceful people killing them all.
Taarna investigates through a dystopian wasteland before captured by the barbarian leader who she later battles and defeats as well as the other barbarians.
The Taarna story is the longest by far and it sets up the ending where the young girl is revealed to have had the soul of Taarna in her as the Loc-Nar explodes.
While some of the plots seem to take place with little or no explanation, I think it’s more about style than substance. The grittier and more serious stories have art work that looks and appears more realistic. Rotoscoping, which was also used by Bakshi, is used here. That’s when characters are filmed and then the negatives are used for cartoon animation.
Unlike some of Bakshi’s work, the rotoscoping isn’t as distracting on the eyes as much.
However, “Captain Stern” is based on the artwork of Bernie Wrightson with all the different alien creatures and looks more cartoonish.
Also the style seems to be geared toward an audience of young men with all the nudity and women who are mostly so quick to have sex with male characters at the drop of a hat. Harry Canyon is a balding slightly pudgy character. And Gloria and the robot have sex, off camera, but it makes you wonder how as the robot holds up his hand as his middle finger twists around.
I’m sure even in 1981 audiences probably would rolled their eyes at what they see with the outrageous bloody violence and women with bust sizes you’d expect to see them in a Russ Meyer movie.
When it was rereleased in theaters and eventually on on home video, the tagline was “Louder and nastier than ever” and was a reported success. Overall, the movie has made $20 million from a $9 million budget.
And for a title of Heavy Metal, some of the music featured is anything but as Devo and Journey are on the soundtrack.
Still the legacy of the movie lives on thanks to the episode “Major Boobage” on South Park which made very prominent references of how all the women seem to have big breasts.
A sequel Heavy Metal 2000 didn’t have the same impact as it focused on just one story. A Netflix spin-off series Love, Death & Robots has ran for two series so far and it ups up the violence but not so much the sexual content. It’s a different time and I don’t think audiences are as more willing to see women objectified for sex as they were 40 years ago.
Some movies just seems to exists in the era they were released. But many fans of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, this is more or less an ode to the fans of the genre as well as the magazine.