Friday Night At The Video Store: HEAVY METAL (1981)

“They’re totally naked! You can see everything!!!”

Yes. To a pubescent boy (that boy being me), this movie was a holy grail back in the video era. You heard about it from older guys or siblings. You saw the magazine up on the top shelf in the supermarket, next to the tattoo periodicals and “naughty” books. And those rumors, suggestions, and even possible exaggerations (who cared!) lead me and my buddies to hunt this film down.

Following its theatrical release in 1981, Heavy Metal was only available on cable channels, once in a blue moon. It was usually HBO or Cinemax that would have it, and we would scour the monthly program guide when it arrived to see if it was in the rotation. Thing was, I did not grow up with cable. I lived in the rural area just outside of town, and this was also a few years before my grandfather got an 8 foot parabolic satellite dish that opened up sooooo many worlds for me. So it fell upon one of my best friends, Doug, who had cable, to help plan for the right night for a sleepover at his place so we could view this elusive creature at last.

By now, it’s at least two to three years since Heavy Metal was in theaters, and it was steadily gaining cult notoriety and might be found on a low quality bootleg as the home VHS market was starting. The soundtrack was released on LP and cassette in 1981, and even that was a hard find. But Doug and I finally found a night to catch this unicorn on late night Cinemax. Cue us staying up until 1:30 AM, sitting close to the TV with the volume down, as the epic opening segment “Soft Landing” begins. . . . Then cue us falling asleep before the end of “Den”.

I know, a less than epic conclusion to that chapter, right?

Now fast forward to 1996. Legal issues with rights holders for the music in the film bogged down any plans for re-releasing anything related to the film in the new media formats of CDs and VHS. But by luck, perseverance, and the work of Kevin Eastman (aka the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the soundtrack was released on CD in 1995 and the film officially on VHS in 1996. And you know damn well I got a copy as soon as they hit the stores.

My pre-teen quest was finally finished in my mid-twenties. I had on my shelf the film of my hormonal desires at last. And a part of me is actually glad it took me that long to see it because it gave me time and life experience to appreciate the film for what it is and who helped create it versus just thinking “Boobs!”

The opening segment of “Soft Landing” was based on a comic written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of The Living Dead, Dead & Buried). Featuring songs from The Riggs and Sammy Hagar, it was the perfect set up for the feast of hard rock and animation that would continue throughout. The mix of rotoscope style animation and traditional styles came about from hiring the work out to multiple studios to expedite production.

That opener flows seamlessly into “Grimaldi,” the wrap-around tale that introduces us to the unnamed daughter of the astronaut and the McGuffin of the film, The Loc-Nar, voiced by the legendary Percy Rodriguez (think of any film trailer from the 70s and early 80s, and you know his voice).

The first tale the Loc-Nar tells of those who seek its power is “Harry Canyon,” written by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum, based off The Long Tomorrow by Moebius. In this wonderful future-noir tale, the animators do a fine job of mimicking Moebius’s style. Whenever I here Journey’s “Open Arms,” this segment always pops into my head.

The tales shift from noir to now (or 1981 now) as we meet “Den,” the titular tennage nerd (David Ellis Norman) from Richard Corben’s comic. In a freak storm that involves the Loc-Nar, Den is zapped from our world into another dimension and becomes older and buff as hell in the process while still being voiced by John Candy. This one was hilarious, gory, and just fun in so many ways.

Continuing in the vein of dark humor, we return to space and arrive at the trial of “Captain Strenn.” Loving all things Bernie Wrightson, I’ve always had a lot of love for this one since the character of Captain Lincoln F. Strenn is his creation, and, again, the animators do a decent job of striving towards his style. When Sternn’s chief “character witness” of Hannover Fiste takes the stand, all hell (and the space station) breaks loose. Legend Eugene Levy voices Strenn, and Rodger Bumpass (the voice of Squidward!) is Fiste. Adding Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out and Take It” is just a cherry on the sundae.

Hands down, “B-17” is the best blend of the animation, the story, and the music in the film for me. Maybe I’m just biased because I love World War II stuff, I like reanimated corpses, and Don Felder’s “Take A Ride (Heavy Metal)” is just a damn good song. You be the judge.

“So Beautiful, So Deadly” makes me laugh every time and makes me think they raided the SCTV cast for half of the voice talent in this. John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis all show up in this one. Just remember: Always go for broke with the nyborg, man.

Last but far from least, we are given the the longest segment of the film, “Taarna.” Featuring the last of the Taarakians, Taarna is seen in all her powerful glory on the poster. The sole survivor of a warrior race, she is summoned by an elaborate ritual to help a city under siege, only to find the enter city has been slaughtered by a band of raiders that were empowered and resurrected from a lava flow created by the Loc-Nar. Epic battles and epic tunes ensue (including “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult), bringing the saga to a conclusion. . . . Or does it?

Surprises await the viewer and the Loc-Nar in the closing segment of the wrap around, and we exit on a happier, hopeful note.

Is there a film you searched for in your youth? Something you saw on the store shelf but missed out on? Just remember, Fright Fans: Never give up the hunt. Because when you finally find it, and night can be your Friday night at the video store.

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