Ever since a certain Birmingham-based quartet lifted their band name from Mario Bava’s gothic horror anthology Black Sabbath (1963), the ball was set rolling for an illustrious relationship between metal and cinema. If heavy metal, by its very moniker, suggests a sense of the extreme, the dangerous and the obscene, countless directors have successfully harnessed the music’s debauched energy, scary theatrics and avowed Dionysian spirit for the screen.
While horror might be the natural first point of call for metalheads – as if the two genres were kindred spirits in different forms – there are plenty of movies to discover outside the confines of gothic cinema too. Even David Lynch couldn’t resist metal’s allure. His Palme d’Or winner Wild at Heart (1990) cannily deployed speed-metal merchants Powermad and their propulsive, hellish sound into his film, boosting its sweaty, ultra-violent atmosphere tenfold.
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Thanks to the new Netflix-financed Mötley Crüe biopic, The Dirt, and the current release of Jonas Akerlund’s Lords of Chaos, about the Norwegian black metal scene, the genre is back under the spotlight once again, even if its days of frightening the suburbs are long gone.
Here are 10 films to rattle your speakers with.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Director: Gerald Potterton
France’s pioneering avant-garde comic publication Métal hurlant (Howling Metal) was licensed for the US market as Heavy Metal (cannily co-opting the title of the burgeoning music genre). The Ivan Reitman-produced 1981 feature adaptation (which recreated famous short stories and incorporated fresh material from such screenwriter luminaries as Dan O’Bannon) was promoted using one of the decade’s most striking advertising posters, designed by British artist Chris Achilleos: a buxom, scantily-clad female warrior flying a bird-like beast above a rocky landscape of billowing black smoke and phallic-shaped buildings, while holding a sword aloft. It doesn’t get any more metal than that, right?
While the French mag would profoundly influence sci-fi cinema for generations to come, Reitman’s animated anthology is best appreciated as a piece of era-specific juvenilia, beautifully realised and fantastically otherworldly, but really amounting to a horny metalhead’s wet dream, full of crude breast fetishism, lashings of extreme gore and eye-rolling casual sexism.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Director: Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner’s endearingly dopey sendup of rock’s excesses and ego-battling did not incur the wrath of metal’s figureheads. They lapped it up. Applauding its accuracy in recreating fame’s absurdities and lackeys catering to every ridiculous demand and whim, the gods of rock appreciated the gesture. In other words they got the joke, as while it’s pitched very silly, the humour is never mean-spirited.
Whittled down to a lean 82 minutes from more than 100 hours worth of material, This Is Spinal Tap established the celebrated improv-heavy mockumentary signature of writer Christopher Guest and co, and 35 years on it’s still guaranteed to tickle your funny bone. Nice-but-dim Nigel Tufnel (Guest), the Tap’s Shredder-in-Chief, kicking off about tiny artisan bread like it’s the biggest deal he’s ever faced; the band getting hopelessly lost on their way to the stage; specially made amps that dial up to 11 – Reiner’s film boasts a parade of classic moments.
Trick or Treat (1986)
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Actor Charles Martin Smith’s debut behind the camera mainlines into the Satanic panic of the 1980s and its media-inflamed association with heavy metal, thanks to a plot hinged on one of pop culture’s enduring myths: LPs played backwards reveal hidden messages to the listener.
An early gig for cinematographer Robert Elswit, who uses back lighting and crackling electric-blue hues to conjure a suitably mythic aura and creepy menace to Tony Fields’ monstrous Sammi Curr. Curr is the recently deceased frontman and Satanist whose unreleased album, Songs in the Key of Death, resurrects his malevolent spirit, unleashing it on an unsuspecting town.
Fans will get a kick out of Kiss bassist Gene Simmons appearing briefly as a radio DJ named Nuke, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek cameo from Ozzy Osbourne, here playing the type of mouthy, self-righteous, publicity-seeking religious leader who routinely lambasted his work on US talk shows. “What happened to the good old simple love song?!”
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Did Penelope Spheeris’s film single-handedly kill glam metal? It’s a charge that’s dogged her documentary for years. The 1980s Los Angeles scene was a bacchanal dominated by men with big hair, wearing lots of makeup and the tightest leather pants known to humanity. Not everybody was comfortable with this development, as expressed by several participants in the documentary. Aerosmith’s retort-in-song was their mocking hit, ‘Dude (Looks like a Lady)’, and an undercurrent of homophobia and masculinity-in-crisis is palpable throughout. “I prefer my men to look like men,” one dismissive female groupie declares.
Spheeris’s amusing Tinseltown exploration captures the Sunset Strip in all its fading, sleazy glory. Her teasing questions elicit plenty of aggrandising comments from established rock stars and wannabes, allowing the camera to pick up what lies behind the braggadocio and screaming narcissism: deep wells of insecurity and the palpable fear their time in the spotlight will last the Warholian 15 minutes.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad (2007)
Directors: Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti
Metal might not be louder than bombs, but Iraq’s Acrassicauda give it a good go. Born under the military dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, coming of age in wartime, the band are faced with unbearable pressures and burdens. Their beloved practice room and music equipment is blown to smithereens by US ordnance. They receive death threats for hero-worshipping western bands and for having non-Muslim style facial hair (a goatee beard is linked to Satanism, one of them explains). The boys put up with routine power outages and live under a constant fear of sniper fire from Al-Qaeda terrorists and suicide bombers in public spaces.
This eye-opening rock doc is underpinned by tremendous amounts of sorrow and tragedy, focusing less on music and more on how thrash metal serves as a means of self-expression and identity away from the daily terrors of life in Baghdad and the overbearing pressure to conform socially and religiously.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Despite recording what members of Metallica, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Anthrax and Slayer consider to be one of the finest and most influential thrash metal albums of all time (1982’s Metal on Metal), Canadian outfit Anvil never hit the big time. While contemporaries pack in 20,000-seater stadiums, Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow (axe and frontman) and Robb Reiner (drums) play local sports bars in Toronto and get paid if they’re lucky. In one scene, the guys threaten to beat up a Czech nightclub owner, in order to get their 100 euros payment. They received the money months later.
The multiple award-winning Anvil! The Story of Anvil is not your common or garden story of rock‘n’roll excess and touring depravity. Sasha Gervasi’s uplifting doc focuses more on a decades-long friendship and often testy rivalry between two best mates, more like brothers, who against all odds and life’s disappointments refuse to cease rockin’.
Until the Light Takes Us (2008)
Directors: Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell
For those keen to know more about the story behind Lords of Chaos, Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us explores the same period as the film, mainly from the viewpoint of Darkthrone’s Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, associate of both Burzum’s Kristian ‘Varg’ Vikernes and Mayhem’s Øystein Aarseth.
Covering much of the same ground – teen rebellion, the development of a new sound, the obsession with Norway’s pagan mythology, the rivalry between Vikernes and Aarseth, the church burnings, the murders – Fenriz makes for a captivating, grumpy guide: a recording artist who just wants the world and all its journalists to go away, so he can crack on crafting music for an anointed few (Norwegian black metal was always a boys’ club-style inner circle, never a movement). Elsewhere, Vikernes is interviewed in prison and offers his own unrepentant take on events. His military fatigues, too, hint at the right-wing YouTube extremist he is today.
Evil Dead (2013)
Director: Fede Alvarez
“Raining blood / From a lacerated sky / Bleeding its horror / Creating my structure / Now I shall reign in blood”, snarls frontman Tom Araya on ‘Raining Blood’, from Slayer’s landmark 1986 thrash masterpiece, Reign in Blood.
Selected to reboot and revise Sam Raimi’s iconic video nasty for a new generation, after impressing with his homemade internet short Ataque de pánico! (2009), Uruguayan Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead proves imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism, as he lifted Slayer’s stage gimmick of performing ‘Raining Blood’ live in a squall of fake blood for his remake’s gory finale. Fans will certainly get a kick out of recognising the homage, as Jane Levy’s drug-addicted Final Girl faces off against the Abomination outside the cabin in the woods, under a torrential downpour of the red stuff. The redesigned Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (the franchise’s ‘Book of the Dead’) is further metal-flavoured in its use of gothic fonts and illustrations of demons that look like Iron Maiden’s Eddie mascot.
Metallica: Through the Never (2013)
Director: Nimród Antal
2004’s Some Kind of Monster hardly covered Metallica in glory. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s warts-and-all saga painted the planet’s preeminent metal messiahs in a less than flattering light, with band member exits, hissy fits, rehab dramas, creative struggles and pricey therapy sessions with a shrink who spurs on and revels in what drummer Lars Ulrich labels “soap opera bullshit”.
Fast forward to 2013’s concert film, directed by Nimród Antal, and the Metallica machine once again shines like chrome. A riveting spectacle, nuclear-powered by the band’s greatest hits and a consistently eye-catching stage design, it offers live footage spliced together with the story of a young roadie (played by Dane DeHaan) sent out into the night on an errand to retrieve a mysterious leather bag. Antal’s lively orchestration of duelling narratives cleverly begins to merge into a dreamlike whole, as Metallica’s tunes magically begin to control the roadie’s increasingly surreal experiences.
Director: Jason Lei Howden
Like 1986’s Trick or Treat, Jason Lei Howden’s horror comedy is centred on a lonely kid who doesn’t fit in with the crowd. Spending his days rocking out with a newly formed band – capitalised as DEATHGASM, “Because lowercase is for pussies” – they go from larking around in corpse paint and making crummy music videos in local woodland to saving their boring town, Grey Point, from an apocalypse they unsuspectingly kick off, after finding Satanic sheet music and playing it in their garage.
A riotous lark with tongue firmly planted in cheek, the film proves nobody makes splatter flicks quite like the Kiwis, harking back as it does to Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992). Embracing metal’s sense of grand guignol, poking fun at the genre’s penchant for sexist attitudes and finding unexpected homoerotic undertones amid the macho posturing and male aggression, Howden’s irony-laced tale of terror is a savvy genre deconstruction.