Birmingham gets a bad rap, but the roots of one of genre cinema’s greatest love affairs lie within the Second City’s concrete jungle. It was 1969 when a band named Earth, made up of a quartet of Brummie hippies, were contemplating a change in moniker in their Newtown Community Centre rehearsal room. A chance glance out of the window provided a lightning bolt of inspiration, as the soon-to-be-superstars observed punters queuing around the block at the local cinema, keen to get a look at the Boris Karloff-starring horror caper Black Sabbath (the queue would probably have been even longer had the screening been for the original Italian version, I tre volti della paura, but that’s another story for another time). Opining how it was curious that people were prepared to pay to be frightened out their wits at the movies, a collective lightbulb moment arose – maybe there was a market for horror movies in the form of music.
The rest, as they say, is history. Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward took the name of Bava’s masterpiece as their own, also applying it to what Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford would go on to call “probably the most evil song ever written”. Heavy Metal was born, and an unholy alliance between screaming audiences and screeching guitars was forged. 45 years after the fact, Brooklyn wordsmith and unapologetic metalhead Mike McPadden brings us Heavy Metal Movies, a guide to “the 666 most headbanging movies of all time”. As you can imagine, it rocks harder and heavier than Jimi Hendrix wearing iron boots and backed by an army of air-guitaring pie enthusiasts.
Following a foreword from none other than Alice Cooper – a man who knows a thing or two about straddling the line between the visceral thrills of music and movies, in addition to his encyclopaedic knowledge of Milwaukee – McPadden gets down to the dirty business at hand; profiling the flicks that blend fretboard-wrangling metal might with visceral thrills on-screen, with each entry allocated a plot summary, an explanation as to its inclusion and a brief review. The selection process is an interested and varied one, ranging from the obvious to the off-kilter; rock docs such as Anvil!: The Story of Anvil and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster rub shoulders with the likes of Bill & Ted and Wayne’s World, while many more make the cut for a variety of motives. Some appear thanks to their soundtracks, others due to the presence of rock royalty among the cast and crew, and a whole host are present simply due to the sheer heavy metal spirit and tone of the finished product.
Unsurprisingly the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres are the best represented, especially the kind of low-budget disasterpieces associated with the infamous oversized rental boxes of the 80s – the excesses of this fare fitting snugly inside the core principles of metal like hand and glove. If you’re anything like DragonDark you’ll be racing through the pages to find those movies you hold warm and fuzzy memories of, despite knowing in your heart of hearts that they’ll be awful when viewed in the harsh light of 2014. As a result, we were thrilled to find Charles Martin Smith’s Gene Simmons-starring high school revenge flick Trick or Treat enjoying more column inches than it ever has ever previously experienced, Mark Goldblatt’s Lundgren-led Punisher adap from 1989 and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing receiving the kind of love they are so harshly denied elsewhere, while slasher franchise-wannabe Shocker earns a savaging (the soundtrack still kicks ass, mind you – Wes Craven blamed Capitol’s instance on flooding the flick with choice cuts from their big-selling metal artists of the day for his movie living up to its name at the box office). Plus we’ll never tire of reading about Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Never.
Sure a number of potential entries are missing and some of the admissions are questionable, but space is finite and for the most part McPadden justifies his inclusions wholly satisfactorily. John Carter’s inclusion remains somewhat abstract (though welcome), but Revenge of the Sith makes the cut as “Darth Vader is who he is among heavy metal icons, and this dumb, broken-video-game idea of a movie is his official coming-out story”, while 2001’s brain-bending theological musings are capped with “Whether that made any sense to you or not, your head just got banged!”
As you can probably tell from the above, McPadden has a wholly entertaining turn of phrase that makes up for most shortcomings in the book – some reviews and recaps are significantly longer than others, and many entries feel a little abrupt, but when a subject matter really sparks the author’s interest he speaks with passion and knowledge (though those who object to a mild locker room talk should be forewarned – McPadden is also the Head Writer of the internet phenomena Mr. Skin, and makes no secret of his admiration of the female form throughout). We know all there is to know about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by now but doesn’t prevent us from enjoying McPadden’s take on Hooper’s highlight, and whilst he is clearly an intelligent and articulate man it’s refreshing to read a perspective from someone who holds no truck with cinematic incongruence. Aside from dismissing the brief craze for black-and-white vampire-as-metaphor-for-heroin-addiction flicks that arose in the 90s as “rancid hipster art-horrors”, the entry on Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead finds McPadden at his acerbic best, holding no truck with the talk of subtext and allegory:
“Regarding the postgame analysis of Dawn as some sort of satire of consumerism or political commentary or metaphor for class warfare; palaver like that arises from lofty academic and media gatekeeper types wanting in on the fun being had by the ‘bad kids’ The same overthinkers worked their tragic magic on punk, and the result was U2.”
These elegant assertions ensure that enjoyment is guaranteed, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the man’s views on the subject matter. For the record, DragonDark frequently found our opinions at odds with some of the opinions expressed – McPadden is infinitely more responsive to the work of Rob Zombie than us, for example, while we’ll defend the flawed genius of Lifeforce until our dying breath (though we hope our last words can be reserved for something a little more relevant). While half the fun arises from seeing if your views match those of McPadden, there’s also plenty of coverage of metallic movies you’ll never have heard of. There appear to have been more Barbarian-themed flicks produced over the years than even Wolf from Gladiators could sit through in any number of sittings, and were you aware that Metallica scored a bizarre-sounding, Winona Ryder-starring movie ode to internet sensation The Darwin Awards back in 2006? DragonDark certainly wasn’t. We’re also imploring anybody with a copy of Werewolves on Wheels to come forward – we’re willing to pay good money.
Heavy Metal Movies is a perfect tome to dip in and out of, a heavyweight read but lightly presented in paperback and monochrome print (a colourful mid-section of classic movie posters aside). There are thousands of more academically nourishing volumes on the shelves of your local bookstore, but fittingly few can match the charm and dynamism of Mike McPadden’s writing – like the greatest of metal acts, the man dubbed ‘McBeardo’ has taking the basic tenements of a classical structure and added a glorious anarchic spirit. There’s enough here to recommend the tome to fans of genre cinema alone, but if you’re also blessed with the rebellious spirit of a rock ‘n roller, don your studded silver reading glasses and prepare to feel the steel.