A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
Let all metalheads throw up their devilhorns in celebration—Mike “McBeardo” McPadden’s blood-soaked, guitar-churning anthology Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, & Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big-Scream Films Ever! is finally here, arriving from the hellish depths of Bazillion Points. For a time, I thought I was the only one actively researching and publishing on the presence of metal music and its subculture in cinema; but then, about a year ago, I heard about McPadden’s project and rejoiced: “finally, I’m not alone!” And now, with his interest in both metal and horror, plus three and a half years of hard labor and dutiful viewing, he’s compiled, no doubt, the most metal text in film literature, making it an obligatory read for all those with interest in both subjects.
Open its splendid front cover, which features a phalanx of angry monsters marching away from a marquee, and you’ll see why this is so. As the first publication of its kind, Heavy Metal Movies covers the most headbanging films of all time, from A to Z. McPadden allots anything from a few paragraphs to several pages to thorough plot summaries and impassioned commentaries, and often bespeckles with them his witty, conversational humor, calling Heavy Metal Massacre (1989), as an example, a “pass-around tape conducive to group sessions where participants cough smoke and ask, ‘What the f**k is this s**t we’re watching?’” But don’t let such jokes fool you: McPadden is a bona fide film-buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, ranging from its formative years to the twenty-first century. Additionally, the book includes several pages featuring movie posters, some of which are on thick, glossy paper, that gives their images a sheen that pleasantly contrasts the gruesome films they depict. Indeed, it’s everything a metal-minded cinephile could ask for in a book of this sort.
To really appreciate Mr. McPeddon’s achievement—and not just that of having watched and absorbed 666 of the most abrasive and disreputable films of all time—it’s important, I argue, to understand the attention he gives to one of the most neglected and under-researched genres of popular cinema, Heavy Metal Horror. This perhaps needs some explaining, because unless you’re a fan of all things metal or among the keenest camp connoisseurs, such a genre hasn’t likely found its way onto your cultural radar. Either way, a discussion of these films is always worth doing.
The Heavy Metal Horror cycle was a decade-long stream of low-budget films that enmeshed elements of the horror genre and metal music, and often satirized the moral crusades of its day. The marriage between this filmic and musical genre was appropriate, if not inevitable. After all, both were in vogue and, as McPadden rightfully claims, constitute “two byways of a single continuum” (8). Loud soundtracks, demonic rock musicians, backwards masking, deranged teenagers, spittle-spattering anti-rock parents—all things that make up these movies’ idiosyncratic edge; but while such a description might lead one to suppose their scholarly viability (for example, their capacity to reflect and comment on the culture in which they were produced), this hasn’t been the case. Unfortunately, no academic or popular discourse exists on this topic, save for Ian Christe’s immaculately researched Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, some negligible mentions in horror genre anthologies, and my resent article “Heavy Metal Monsters!: Reductio Ad Rediculum and the Heavy Metal Horror Cycle of the 1980s” (Film Matters 5.1, Forthcoming). The subject, in a word, is a veritable terra incognita, unexplored territory.
That’s where Mr. McPadden comes in. He presents a hitherto unavailable resource that provides lively plot summaries of these films, some of which are rather difficult to come by, as well as explicates their thematic continuities, generic conventions, production histories, and relevance to their respective cultural climates. All the big players of the cycle are here, too. There’s Don Edmonds’ Terror on Tour (1980), perhaps the progenitor of the cycle; Fred and Beverly Sebastian’s Rocktober Blood (1984); the late Krishna Shah’s Hard Rock Zombies (1985); Charles Martin Smith’s comparatively big-budgeted Trick or Treat (1986); Tibor Takács’ The Gate (1987); John Fasano’s classics Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare (1987) and Black Roses (1988); David DeFalco, Steven DeFalco, and Ron Ottaviano’s aforementioned Heavy Metal Massacre; Mark Freed’s Shock ‘Em Dead (1991); plus a litany of films you might not know but, once watched, will not easily forget.
If the book had done no more than introduce the works of this film cycle, it would have been a considerable service. But McPadden doesn’t stop there. He also includes narrative films that feature subcultural characters, metal soundtracks, cameos from the musical genre’s icons, or evince the (how to put this?) “metal spirit,” an irreducible anomaly that underlies certain movies’ powers. Examples include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Häxan (1922),The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), River’s Edge (1986), Tapeheads (1988), Skulhedface (1994), Dazed and Confused (1993), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), and Beavis and Butt-head Do American (1996). Documentaries abound here, as well, with references to Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), The Decline of the Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies (1994), Get Thrashed: The Story of Thrash Metal (2006), and Until the Light Takes Us (2008).
Admittedly, the inclusion of some of these films (here I’m thinking of How to Train Your Dragon  and—“gasp”—Gidget ) are sure to contract some readers’ brows, and perhaps the case can be made that their presence indicates too broad a scope, as though the text stretches itself a little thin. But in view of McPadden’s casual, often idiomatic tone, his mention of these films is more or less felicitous: it limits a certain amount of pretension and exclusivity that’s common of subcultural literature, and suggests, however tenuously, that the “metal spirit,” as it were, can be found in the most unlikely of places. As he writes of How to Train Your Dragon, which foregrounds its use of Norse mythological iconography, “Nobody ever said a kid’s gateway to heavy metal couldn’t be cute” (246).
Overall, it’s an impressive roster of films, but McPadden’s text isn’t quite comprehensive. It must be said that he commendably gives equal attention to both narrative and documentary film, but experimental cinema is almost entirely absent from his text. There are entries on Salvador Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1972), sure, but that’s about it. The reason for this is understandable, perhaps: metal, unlike punk and other musical subcultures, hasn’t really found its way into experimental filmworks. There are, however, some recent instances where the two have crossed paths, some of which are rather impressive, such as Black Thorns in the Black Box (2006-2011), an anthology film that features eleven contributions showcasing how black metal pervades all spheres of creation; and Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013), which follows a quiet guy as he passes through three different phases of his life, the third of which chronicles his participation in a Finnish black metal band.
In fairness, these films are relatively recent and, I’m sure, a chore to attain (both, to my knowledge, have yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray format). But throughout the 560 pages of his tome, McPadden proves himself to be a master of getting his hands on even the obscurest of cinematic gems—so why doubt his abilities here? In the end, the exclusion of this filmic mode, as I see it, constitutes a missed opportunity; but perhaps experimental filmworks will get the attention they deserve in Heavy Metal Movies II, which McPadden suggests will be on the horizon in the future (547). I can say with confidence that readers of the present text will doubtlessly await baited for its arrival.
This is a minor qualm, to be sure, and can by no means besmear Heavy Metal Movies’ chief success, which is the visibility it gives to the sinfully neglected interconnection between heavy metal and cinema. Both groundbreaking and energetically written, it is one of the most important publications on the reciprocity between popular culture and cinema written in recent years, and inarguably solidifies as McPadden as the authority on the subject. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, McPadden’s book suggests a further space for work. It is my sincere hope that he continues to publish on this topic, and that his present text serves as a loud clarion-call for others to do the same. Who knows? With time and effort, metal might work its way into the confines of film studies, just as it did with middle class households in the 1980s, infusing the field with its extremity, humor, and inexhaustible liveliness.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.