After years being tied up in red tape over music rights, the 1981 animated rocker "Heavy Metal" finally returns to theaters across the nation this weekend, a prelude to its long-awaited video release.
The R-rated cult favorite, a midnight movie perennial, is being screened in 39 cities in the United States and Canada. In an ad line that echoes one used by Warner Bros. for "My Fair Lady," which was billed upon re-release as "more loverly than ever," Columbia Pictures promises that "Heavy Metal" will be "louder and nastier than ever," with digital sound and remastered prints.
Over the last decade, "Heavy Metal" has been the most active title in Columbia's library, according to Sony Pictures repertory director Michael Schlesinger, who calls it the studio's "Rocky Horror Picture Show." The deterioration of prints forced its withdrawal from the midnight circuit last July.
It is also one of the most requested to be released on home video. "We get thousands of letters," said Kevin Eastman, who bought Heavy Metal magazine in 1991. "At comic conventions in France, where much of the magazine's original source material comes from, all I hear is, 'When is that movie ever going to be released?' "
Which is why "Heavy Metal" has been heavily bootlegged from the film's cable TV broadcasts (it aired last September on Cinemax).
Ivan Reitman, who produced the film, said that efforts to bring the film to video date back to when he made "Ghostbusters" for Columbia. The major obstacle was red tape over the music rights. "Because it's become something of a cult classic," he said, "we thought it would be fun to improve the sound and come up with new prints just to remind people of the movie before the video release."
The movie, an animated adaptation of the adult-oriented illustrated science-fiction/fantasy magazine, was conceived in the wake of the box-office success of "National Lampoon's Animal House." The magazines shared the same publisher, and the movies that bore their name the same producer, Reitman.
"I'm mostly a comedy buff," he said by phone from the Aspen Comedy Festival, which hosted an "Animal House" reunion, "but I thought there would be a good film in it. I do like science fiction and I loved the illustrations and some of the stories. They were different from anything I had ever seen. The idea was to create an animated film for an older audience."
"Heavy Metal" was directed by Gerald Potterton, who coordinated the efforts of more than 1,000 artists, animators and technicians from 17 countries. It was written for the screen by Dan Goldberg and Len Blum, who wrote "Meatballs" and "Stripes" for Reitman, and are currently at work on the film of Howard Stern's bestseller "Private Parts."
Based on artwork and stories by, among others, graphic guru Richard Corben and "Alien" screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, the film is composed of futuristic animated sequences that are galaxies away from Disney.
In "Den," for instance, a virginal bookworm (voiced by John Candy) is transformed into an incredible hunk who, to his disbelief, gets to bed a grateful female sacrifice he has rescued as well as an evil, yet insatiable queen. "Eighteen years of nothing," he exclaims, "and now two times in one day!"
"Heavy Metal's" potent soundtrack, which includes Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and Cheap Trick, and the violent and sexual imagery made "Heavy Metal" a spaced odyssey. As with other films that have achieved cult status, the critics didn't know quite what to make of it. Sheila Benson, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it "the most expensive adolescent fantasy revenge fulfillment wet dream ever to slither onto a screen."
Kevin Eastman's life, for one, was forever changed. "It blew me away," he said. "I saw it nine times at a local theater at some accidental plaza in Westbrook, Maine. After the same old superhero comic schlock, this whole other universe opened to me."
What does "Heavy Metal," the last R-rated studio animated feature, bring to the party in 1996, the age of cyberspace and where even Pat Boone is recording a metal album? One sees its influence in Japanamation, in MTV's animated series, "Aeon Flux" and "The Max," and even the "Mad About You" episode in which comic-book artist Eric Stoltz transformed Helen Hunt into the evil queen Talon.
Allowed screenwriter Blum: " 'Heavy Metal' captures a juncture in the growth of the human imagination. Music was changing, it was getting less pretty, and the fantasies were getting more vivid. It's up to the young audience of today to see how we did."