Review: Heavy Metal (1981) film; music, sexism and gaming culture.

I’m notorious for never watching TV or movies but I’m currently reading Designers & Dragons Shannon Appelcline’s wonderful history of the rpg industry and immersed in 1970s and 1980s culture. While doing so I chanced upon the cover of White Dwarf issue 77 (I’m guessing 1985 or ’86) and the striking image…

White Dwarf 77 cover by Chris Achilléos

Now this is from a very different era: even when I first met Becky almost twenty years later she referred to my rpg books and mags as “soft porn”. Given the sexploitation imagery that was prevalent on them, I can see why – they are closer to the days of Benny Hill than modern sensibilities. More on this later…

It struck me that I recognised the image, and started me musing that I had seen the image elsewhere – and then I found it was the Chris Achilléos poster for a cult animated 1981 Canadian movie called Heavy Metal.

The famous movie poster

The story of how the film was made is an odd one; Heavy Metal magazine was the direct source and the soundtrack is filled with Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Nazareth and er, Stevie Nicks! I have put the OST on as I type this and it’s pretty mellow music actually predating most thrash/speed/black metal – more Wishbone Ash than what was to come. It is very North American: the New Wave of British Heavy Metal isn’t much reflected. Devo is!

The movie is five short stories, an anthology linked by an evil space alien that takes the form of a glowing green sphere. They are incredibly uneven in quality, though there is a certain dry wit in some, and persistent adolescent humour throughout. It is fun cheesy sexploitation fantasy violence – adolescent male fantasies of big breasted naked women pining for fast sex and lots of broadswords and ludicrously named villains and green skinned minions who die in droves. It reminded me that Heavy Metal culture embraced Tolkein hard, and D&D culture embraced Heavy Metal. I think the links between the Metal scene and rpg culture with their mutual love of fantasy landscapes casual sexism and occult practices need proper investigation; adolescent landscapes of imagination and wish fulfillment.

So is the film any good? Objectively no: it’s pretty awful from a plot perspective. Is it enjoyable? Yes, maybe. This is going to be a cult film: I was never impressed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Withnail & I  so I probably have terrible taste.

Another thing I’ve noticed rewatching some movies like This is Spinal Tap, The Full Monty and Hot Fuzz is that I go from loving a film to watching it again and not liking it much to adoring it as my life changes.  So it’s really contextual if I like a film: it says nothing about the quality.

I watched this film in bits and finished it out of a sense of duty. The better segments are the first half — some have halfway decent plots — but by the end I was entertained and it is beautifully animated. Five separate studios and one non-animated explosion at the end, Ivan Reitman producing and a number of famous actors on voices — yeah if you were born in the 60s or 70s you should watch this. If you were born after 2000 you might be sickened and confused though.

The colours strongly suggest you should smoke weed drink cheap beer and watch this in your bedroom. It is a mind blowing artefact from another time and culture more alien in some ways to us now than the planet Den travels to in the most famous sequence.

So why watch it? Well one of the finest South Park episodes is an extended tribute to/parody of it — Series 12 episode 3 Major Boobage in which Gerald and Kenny take up cheesing, huffing cat urine to get high – and enter the world of the movie. The parody is spot on, and unfortunately the South Park episode is far cleverer and raises far more significant issues than the original film which is more akin to Beavis & Butthead see Boobies in its unrelenting adolescent glory. I found a sequence from the South Park episode on YouTube here: it is not as graphic as the original film, South Park displaying taste, decorum and censorship in comparison! Do watch it before you rent the 1981 movie.

Don’t huff cats, kids! Drugs are bad, O.K?

So yes you should watch the film just so you can appreciate the South Park episode better: but it’s not going to make it in to the Canon when you next attend a literary salon and need to impress the intelligentsia.

So overall it was quite the experience; you can rent or buy the download online, and you might enjoy it. It did make me think a bit about all that gratuitous display of female nudity. A few comments — there is a lot of nudity but all of the women who do appear have personalities, agendas and a definite stake in the stories. Sex is commonly depicted in a manner that was shocking and titillating in 1981 – but our culture celebrates sex, sex work and sexuality in a way that in 1981 would have been a lot more shocking. I saw a Benny Hill sequence the other day and wondered what was really sexist about a dirty old man being chased by a group of angry women? If we accept Internet porn and Only Fans and Naked Attraction as a society, it is hard to see why the childlike but strangely innocent sexism of 1981’s Heavy Metal is shocking at all?

Anyway I watched a film: it seemed worth mentioning that fact!

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.