Heavy Metal Movies

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Heavy Metal Movies

Posted on: July 16th, 2014 by tommyj

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Michael Nirenberg Headshot
Michael Nirenberg Headshot

This piece first appeared on bazillionpoints.com

I recently did an interview with Mike "McBeardo" McPadden about his book Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos & Cult Zombies Amok In the 666 Most Ear and Eye Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" to use while reviewing the book for classic Horror Film Magazine; Fangoria. The interview was so funny and so insightful; I wanted to publish it here in its entirety.

MN: Can you tell me a little bit about the characteristic similarities that define horror films and heavy metal music?

MM: It can never be stressed enough that horror cinema planted the creative seed that birthed heavy metal. Some time in late 1960s England, the members of a hard-edged blues band called Earth noticed a line of excited moviegoers outside a theater showing a Boris Karloff-Mario Bava fright anthology. It occurred to them that they might tap into something powerful and profound by following the lead of Messrs. Karloff and Bava by making music that scares people. Thusly did the band Earth rename itself after the title of the movie: Black Sabbath.

And I do believe that heavy metal music emerged, fully formed, on Friday the 13th of February 1970, with "Black Sabbath", the kickoff song on Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album. The very first sounds are that of a rainy night, instantly evoking Jack the Ripper, werewolves of London, or worse, followed by Tony Iommi’s three-note power chord eruption of the "Devil’s tritone" — a sonic outburst said to have been outlawed for its power of demonic conjuring — and wails about a figure in black followed by cries unto heaven for deliverance from this otherworldly evil. It’s pure horror cinema alchemized as rock music.

So horror films and metal music are linked from the latter’s birth, and came of age under the overtly scary-movie-loving auspices of Alice Cooper, Blue Öyster Cult, Iron Maiden, and so on.

In terms of characteristic similarities beyond the obvious lyrical topics — e.g., the occult, slashers, dragons, howling virgins — the visceral sound that defines metal plows into the same area of the senses that leap to life while watching a scary movie. Thunderous chords are jump scares, and shredding solos work as either screams of terror or diabolical guffaws.

MN: What are the criteria of a Heavy Metal Movie? Did you allow instances to stretch those criteria?

MM: In defining what makes a Heavy Metal Movie, first up there are the obvious documentaries and concert films — The Decline of Western Civilization Part II; The Song Remains the Same.

Then come narrative films where heavy metal music is the essential subject — This Is Spinal Tap; Airheads.

From there, it’s films where characters love heavy metal — Wayne’s World, Bill and Ted — and/or heavy metal musicians appearing in the movie, as in Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World again or Lemmy in Hardware and Eat the Rich. Rob Zombie’s movie fall under this same umbrella.

After that, you’ve got movies that inspired band names and/or song lyrics. Iron Maiden has literally dozens of such songs, spanning from "The Wicker Man" to "Aces High" to "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."

Soundtracks dominated by heavy metal certainly qualify: AC/DC’s work in Maximum Overdrive, for example.

Now past the direct, tangible connections is the really interesting stuff, where you have to say, "I know a Heavy Metal Movie when I see it." This is the realm of aesthetic embodiments, influences, and inspirations — movies that crystalize and catapult forward the spirit of heavy metal: Conan the Barbarian, The Exorcist, the Mad Max series, theTerminator movies, George Romero’s zombie epics, Italian cannibal gross-outs, ’80s slasher films, banned "video nasties"; even something as beautiful as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Watching films of that varied ilk and feeling their heavy metal aspects is akin to the way you can listen to Judas Priest, Poison, the Melvins, Slipknot and inherently understand each of them to be musically heavy metal.

By way of stretches, the one that comes to mind was a momentary indulgence: Forbidden Zone, Richard Elfman’s eye-bulging, mind-melting black-and-white musical from 1980. His brother Danny Elfman performs a modified "Minnie the Moocher" in a white tux as the devil. I amped up the Satanic connections to make it metal. Forbidden Zone is my favorite movies of all time, so, please, allow me.

MN: In what ways has heavy metal influenced horror and vice versa?

MM: The two forms do seem to echo one another as they have evolved.

Consider the late 1960s/early 70s metal of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, with their invocation of spell-casting, soul-selling, and supernatural forces, along with Alice Cooper’s explosively gory stage show. Then consider how all that naturally reflects the new territories being staked out by taboo-busting films like Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — almost to the point of being of a piece with one another.

The late-70s New Wave of British Heavy Metal — from which we get Iron Maiden, Witchfinder General, and Saxon — largely crossed the essence of Hammer Films with the DIY spirit and forward propulsion of punk.

Then in the ’80s, thrash matched the convulsive energy and visceral explicitness of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and their slasher ilk; while grindcore and death metal in the ’90s and 2000s worked as hard as possible to match horror’s severe, up-close, shot-on-video grotesqueries on the order of Japan’s Guinea Pig films and Eric Stanze’s Scrapbook, and so on.

The last time I noticed a bold-stroke music-movie parallel between horror and metal was during the 2000s, when France suddenly produced a spate of top-notch black metal and death metal groups like Arkhon Infaustus and Gojira — the latter, again, named after a scary movie — while at the same time there arose some truly groundbreaking, no-limits French horror films, including the masterpieces Martyrs and Inside.


Would you say horror film poster art was as influential to heavy metal as the films themselves?
Sure, and sometimes more so. Horror is arguably the most dominant form of exploitation film and one of the charms of exploitation is that the poster so frequently — although not always — promises so much more than the movie can deliver.

Just think about some specific posters that petrified you as a kid–filling your mind with all manner of lurid and harrowing images — and then the movie itself turned out to be laughable.

Tattooed on my right wrist is the poster image from the 1972 AIP revenge-of-nature stinker Frogs. It’s a beautifully rendered frog with a full-sized human hand flopping out of its mouth. I first saw the poster when I was five and it completely blew my developing brain circuits. I finally caught Frogs when I was seven on The 4:30 Movie and it was a total snooze. But I so loved the feelings inspired by the poster I had it inked onto my body. I imagine many in the musical field of metal can tell similar stories.

MN: How did the Alice Cooper chapter in the beginning come about?

MM: In the 90s, I worked as Entertainment Editor at Hustler magazine out in Los Angeles. The hard rock magazine Rip was also under the Larry Flynt Publishing umbrella and I was casually friendly in passing with its editor, Katherine Turman, who worked in a nearby office. Leaping ahead a few decades, Katherine is the co-author of Louder Than Hell indispensible oral history of heavy metal, as well as the producer of the syndicated radio show "Nights With Alice Cooper."

As I was writing HMM, Katherine and I were Facebook friends, so when the time came, I hit her up for an Alice interview, and she delivered beyond belief.

Alice could not have been funnier, friendlier, or more gracious. And I thank Katherine forever for making the interview happen.

MN: Who do you think was the most metal actor/actress and why?

MM: The most metal actor is Arnold Schwarzenegger by virtue his huger-than-human physical brawn and the exquisite skill matched with relentless brute force by which he forged it into being, his hard-edged Teutonic clunk, his affable embrace/embodiment of mayhem, and the sheer violent joy of his every public moment.

Most metal actress is trickier, until you consider metal’s traditionally female qualities. Lina Romay comes immediately to mind then — dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-souled, haunted, haunting, and dead before her time, which, in light of the previously mentioned qualities, may have made it exactly her time. And, in death, she lives and influence and directly interacts with the living forever.

Soledad functioned as the muse of Spanish horror auteur Jesus Franco, starring in a handful of starkly sexual terror films, including his two best works, She Killed in Ecstasy and Vampyros Lesbos. In 1970, at age 27, while in the midst of shooting Franco’s Juliette, Soledad died in a car accident and immediately became the stuff of gothic legend. Franco maintained to the end that her death was the worst day of his life. I’ve always thought the witchy, green-faced female figure on the first Black Sabbath album cover might be the spirit of Soledad.

MN: Why do you think the majority of the films in this book are horror films?

MM: Metal and horror drill into and let loose the same human curiosities, impulses, feelings, memories, ideas — essentially casting terror and power as the most vitally alive elements — and moments — of existence.

MN: Did you find any significant difference between B-movies vs. mainstream movies in terms of your defined heavy metal criteria?

MM: No. Large-scale, I view all movies as being the same species. Up-close, of course, each individual film has to be considered through the prism of all its outside elements: scope, budget, impact, one’s own perceived intentions of the makers.

An interesting contrast is the original Terminator, a cheap exploitation masterwork, versus Terminator 2, a triumph of monster-budget blockbuster hugeness. Both perfectly conceived and executed Heavy Metal Movies.

Specifically, I think of those two films of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All versus Metallica’s Black Album–definitive, world changing works of metal on different scales and levels. I can tell you which one of those I still listen to, but it’s not for me to say which one is "more" metal than the other.

MN: I thought it was interesting to include metal related TV episodes and "Metal Moments in Non-Metal Movies" in the appendices. Can you tell me a bit about your decision to include these lists?

MM: The initial seeds of Heavy Metal Movies were planted when I contributed two chapters tote Official Heavy Metal Book of Lists by Eric Danville back in 2009. Initially, I just wrote one, "The 13 Greatest Heavy Metal Horror Movies of All Time", but I’ve always been impressed by the way my cartoonist friend Tony Millionaire, week in and week out, punctuates his comic strip Maakies with a shrunken micro-comic under each week’s main strip. So I came up with "The 13 Most Metal Moments in Non-Metal Movies" as a very obscure homage to Tony’s relentless work ethic.

Anyway, the idea for my book started with those twenty-six titles and, even though I do make some metallic leaps in terms of what warranted a full review, I wanted to acknowledge some of the "bubbling under" material. It was also a way to pluck some titles out of the massive main body of the book. The cover says "666", but 850 actually made the final cut. There are three hundred or so more fully written reviews that will someday emerge somewhere.

TV-wise, stuff like Kiss on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special and Sonny Bono eerily resembling King Diamond as Deacon Dark on The Love Boat is just so much fun to both reminisce about and expose new people to that I wanted to acknowledge the tube’s role in my overall metal education.

MN: Which films didn’t make the book that almost did?

MM: Rollercoaster, a fun 1977 disaster movie released in the über-’70s gimmick of Sensurround, which was essentially a huge speaker placed in movie theaters with a low-end sound said to rumble the audience’s seats.

Sensurround is metal in itself, but I was further trying to push the movie’s metal cred by highlighting Rollercoaster’s live performance by one of my all-time favorite bands, Sparks. They took the gig after Kiss passed on it, and they play two of near-metal songs, "Big Boy" and "Fill ‘Er Up". Alas, as much as I love Sparks, I couldn’t realistically sell them as heavy metal.

Another almost-ran was FM, a 1978 ensemble comedy set in and around a rock station, the tagline of which was "A NOW Story With Music!" It’s a terrific snapshot of its own cultural moment.

Free-form commercial FM radio profoundly impacted my youth. It was initially where I heard metal and punk, so I wanted to tip my hat in that direction.

FM, the movie, features real rock stars and coincidentally parallels the great sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati to the point that a lot of people think the show was a spinoff from the movie. It’s not.

What kept FM out of the book was its absolute dearth of metal. There are live performances by Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffet, Tom Petty, and, coming closest to metal, REO Speedwagon, who started out as a heavy, bluesy biker band before they hit big.

Full disclosure: I am related by marriage to REO Speedwagon. My wife is the niece of keyboardist and founding member Neal Doughty, a fantastic fellow who we both love very much, and it was a funny conversation when I had to tell Uncle Neal that REO’s performance in FM just wasn’t metal enough.

MN: If you were to do this massive three plus year project over again, is there anything you would do differently?

MM: Tons. I’d spellcheck the living shit out of every sentence, and I’d make sure I got everyone’s name correct as I went along. Final edits on this beast were a bear. I’d also approach more cohesively, with a hard plan. I just kind of wrote everything as it came up, and I didn’t look back until the end. Ouch!

MN: How do you see the future for the heavy metal movie?

MM: Heavy Metal Movies will follow the path of all other movies, just as they’ve always done. There will be loud, CGI-soaked heavy metal multiplex monstrosities and scrappy, shot-on-iPhones homemade enterprises. Most will be terrible, precious few will be good, and a tiny sliver will blow minds and bang heads and change the course of cinema and humanity and history. That song remains the same.

MN: Finally, a "Would You Rather" Question:

MM: Would you rather do the same massive book project over, but within a "PG movie" rating constraint? OR- do this book again with the 666 most "folk music" movies ever made (no rating constrictions)? And why?

Folk music, without restrictions. No questions. Heavy metal is about expanding the parameters of what’s doable at rock’s furthest reaches in terms of music, subject matter, and aesthetics, and so to take on the topic of Heavy Metal Movies with PG restrictions would be to fail the subject matter.

Indeed, the endlessly chugging diarrhea train of PG-13 remakes of extreme horror movies from the ’70s and ’80s come to mind. I understand that there’s a global market for these things, but whoever exists in those audiences is not anyone with whom I’m interested in engaging.

And I’ve got no beef with folk music. Metal — and not just folk metal, per se — arises from the same tradition: pick up a guitar and belt out what’s on your mind and in your heart. Metal just opts to do it louder.

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