The Cult of Kitsch: Heavy Metal (1981)

The iconic poster and magazine cover for 1981’s “Heavy Metal” film.

By Wes Smith

In anticipation for Gamescom and the slew of announcements likely to come in the next week or so, we’re taking a short break from the news at Acta Dinerda to bring you a series of reviews and lookbacks at iconic, influential, or just plain fun classic cult films from the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. We’re calling it the Cult of Kitsch, and each day this week we’ll bring you a short write-up of one of our favorites!

To start off, what better way than what is possibly THE animated cult film: Heavy Metal.

Released in 1981 and directed by Gerald Potterton, Heavy Metal has become synonymous with teenage boys, comic books, and, well, heavy metal music. Is usage of nudity, violence, and language capstoned an era of experimentation within the animation industry and would help define the culture of its generation. It was a modest success for its time, but its true legacy would be in hindsight in the years since its release.

The movie itself plays off almost like a reverse Arabian Nights. Rather than a singular storyline, Heavy Metal is a series of short animated films strung together by a malevolent green orb named Loc-Nar. The film opens up with a truly memorable sequence of a classic roadster falling to Earth with Riggs’ “Radar Rider” blaring over the credits. The unnamed driver returns home to his daughter, suitcase in tow, only to be melted by Loc-Nar’s power. So sets off the film as Loc-Nar regales the daughter with tales of Good vs. Evil.

The high-flying opening of

The high-flying opening of “Heavy Metal’s” title credits.

The production itself is as arrayed as the stories. In 1977, Heavy Metal magazine was brought to the United States by Leonard Mogul, the same man who had made National Lampoon the satire of its time. In fact, it was the success of Animal House that sparked the idea of making a Heavy Metal feature film. After producer Ivan Reitman’s success with Animal House, the production team was eager to tap into the raunchier, darker market craved by young adults at the time. Heavy Metal Magazine’s comics full of sex and blood seemed ripe for the job.

For much of the 1960’s and 70’s, animated filmmaking had been dominated by the candy-sweet stories of Disney, Rudolph, and Charlie Brown. However, as Disney’s influence in the decades prior helped spawn a new wave of artists, so too came new storytelling techniques and animation houses. The seeds of change had been planted as smaller productions houses created fables in Wizards (1977) and Watership Down (1978). While not quite the slick, perfected animation drawn by the hands of the Mouse House, the roughshod visual style in those films lent itself to a certain aesthetic of the time, one that would eventually seem a fit for Heavy Metal.

With funding for animation difficult in the U.S. due to Disney’s dominance, Reitman’s team went instead to Canada and several independent production houses instead of one. His Stripes writing team of Len Blum and Dan Goldberg would scour through the magazine for stories to adapt. Gerald Potterton would use his experience as a National Film Board of Canada animation vet to oversee the individual story directors. Due to licensing issues with the magazine and its artists, some of the shorts had to be created newly for the film in the magazine’s style rather than simply using source material.

What resulted is a hodgepodge of styles and tales, from the grim “B-17” to the humorous “So Beautiful and So Dangerous.” The teams used a mixtures of techniques in traditional animation, but some also used a style called rotoscoping in which real actors are filmed on camera and animators then draw over the original work. The process allows for a unique looks and movement, and has since been used in movies like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006).

Because of the mixture of production teams, the film can swing wildly in animation quality. A detailed, gorgeously rendered background may be followed by the barest of lineart. In modern terms, it would likely have been deemed a disaster as a result, but because of its timing, Heavy Metal was a great example of artists trying to forge new ground in the world of animation. The rough, sketch-like art has become somewhat of a pinnacle of a medium that rarely makes appearances in 2015: hand-drawn animation.

What strings the stories together regardless of style is of course the edgy, unapologetic imagery. Not ten minutes into the movie, a cab driver from the future finds himself staring at an unclothed stranger asking for his help. A few minutes later, a geeky kid is turned into a rippling Adonis of a man with, that’s right, more sex. By the end of the film, people have been vaporized and aliens have done lines of drugs off their spaceship floor. The film acted as one giant teenage boy fantasy played out over 90 minutes.

A spaceship offers some humor in the short

A spaceship offers some humor in the short “So Beautiful and So Dangerous.”

Of course, the film would be nothing without its soundtrack. Filled with Blue Oyster Cult, Sabbath, and others of the time, its a bygone collection of lesser-known songs from classic bands. Though many of the artists had reached no small amounts of success by 1981, they were still far from the legends they would become over the next decade. It was the ultimate underground, concert parking lot, pass-me-that-bootleg collection of titles of the time, working perfectly with the film to cement Heavy Metal’s status in the cult realm.

The film opened to a modest $20 million, or a little over $50 million in today’s economy. The critical reception, however, was not as impressive. Many reviews were mixed, with some lamenting the over-the-top fever dream and others praising the animation telling it. Janet Maslin of the New York Times gave some praise, writing, “Its landscapes tend to be barren and otherworldly, its characters stern and mighty. Superhuman fierceness is at the root of this kind of fantasy, but there are also enough sympathetic touches to make the material involving.”

It has since lived on, however, in the cult-film circuit in the same vein as Rocky Horror and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Its success in the Midnight Film world has solidified it as one of the most memorable animated films of its era. It’s an experiment in excess of the best kind, the unmitigated love of nerds who grew up to inspire other nerds in mediums with no end. What it lacks in cohesiveness is made for in iconography and soul. Heavy Metal is far from a perfect film, but it’s a massively entertaining one even today.

Taarna raises her sword in her self-titled climax, a 23-minute sequence capping

Taarna raises her sword in her self-titled climax, a 23-minute sequence capping “Heavy Metal.”

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