Clash of the Titans
1981’s Clash of the Titans is famous for one reason and one reason only: being Ray Harryhausen’s last major motion picture release as America’s stop motion icon extraordinaire. Yet herein lies the sad shame of his last go-around: the aforementioned statement was a lie. This is not a Ray Harryhausen film. Sure, he does his best to do grace the film with some fine, finicky creatures, at least one of which is one of his all-time creations: Medusa. Incidentally, the only sequence in the film that works on every level is the serpentine crawling king snake of the Medusa battle, given life as a sort of pure horror never seen in these sorts of big budget monstrosities. Medusa herself is nothing less than Harryhausen’s most fully formed achievement, trading in the hulking grandeur of his earlier creations with expressionist fever. She moves with a finesse never seen in a Harryhausen creation, yet it is still not life-like; the stilted, jittery motions caused by the stop-motion lend the figure an eerie, worrying quality like an impression of a nightmare rather than true reality. Never before or after did Harryhausen use the limitations of stop-motion, namely their jankiness, to such nail-baiting, demented effect.
Elsewhere, we have special effects galore, and the quality varies from “quite good indeed” (mostly anything resembling horror, like Calibos and the Scorpions, both of whom exploit the stilted stop-motion animation for nightmare inducing motion) to “competently grandiose but nothing special” (the Kraken) to “words fail me” (Bubo, everyone’s favorite punching bag, and it’s easy to see why). But here’s that problem again, rearing its head where nobody wants it to: this is not a Ray Harryhausen film when all is said and done. It’s a Desmond Davis film. Oh, you have no idea who Desmond Davis is do you? Neither do I, and neither of us is missing out. But what I gather about his career in stagy Shakespearean melodrama justifies my inclinations: given the option of being a light bit of fluffy, childlike glee like most Harryhausen films, Davis, likely at the behest of the production company clamoring for a “serious” film and feeling that the way of cheeky, earnest B Harryhausen movies had gone away with the 60s, chose the other route, that of coma-inducing, turgid stuffiness. And this is precisely the same tone that graces just about every single cinematic adaptation of Shakespearean drama you’ll likely ever find, especially the close-up stricken TV-films almost carnally known to men like Davis.
Long story short, he directs the film without a pulse, even if Harryhausen is around to keep things from ever flat-lining. His stop-motion is as nuanced as ever, but it’s the more conventional production design that really hurts the film most of all – the set-design is chintzy, and the costumes no better. The storytelling, meanwhile, is just moldy. Firstly, the film is astoundingly slow, far longer than it needs to be owing to some strange obsessive fixation on developing story and characters without any idea that its story and characters range from boring and trite to truly terrible. There’s never any in-the-moment glee or sense or ebb or flow. It just sort of plods along without an editor, shifting tones like you wouldn’t believe. Whatever you think about stagy Shakespearean melodrama, it certainly doesn’t provide the necessary fuel to feed a grandiose action film director, and as expected, the whole affair is rather stilted and filled with sickly static shots.
It’s all linked together by a rather hilarious Burgess Meredith (who at least had fun with the material in the grand old tradition of full-bodied soothsayers and mad scientists, unlike just about everybody else involved), but the story is a drag. It’s stodgy, embalmed writing at the most divested level, except that it completely and wholly thinks it’s some sort of long lost grand political intrigue work that just happens to break up from time to time for some fantasy ventures when it’s in the mood. The surfeit of great actors playing down to the material doesn’t help either, and main beefcake Harry Hamlin can’t act his way out of a paper bag. None of them seem to be pretending they are staring in a real movie. Most of the film consists of them standing around and explaining the plot to each other. But worst of all, there’s never a personal touch to anything, the whole thing feeling like it was half-remembered from a dream and filled in with broad strokes and lead. It has a would-be epic vibe, but all the grandiosity accomplishes is keep things from ever connecting on a human level.
* Technically, Heavy Metal is a Canadian production, but you wouldn’t know from looking at it. It is so in-line with the American 80s that the difference feels mute for the purposes of this blog at this time. Plus, when I described the purpose of this series, I did use fast and loose with meaning.
One of the stranger post-Star Wars sci-fi boom experiments, Heavy Metal saw an attempt to re-create the delirious juvenelia of teenage rock ‘n’ roll comic books all invested in high-flying, low-brain-cell sci-fi in the film world. In doing so, it captured a significant portion of the immature machismo and low-tier immorality matched to grandiose genre pop that would come to define the 1980s wholesale (not to mention one of the most explicit manifestations of all this debauchery, heavy metal music itself). About this fact, it is completely direct and open; it holds no other pretense, going so far as to make the whole thing an omnibus curio with small, undernourished sequences set next to each other haphazardly and with no thematic consistency. That it is animated and thus looks generally like a particularly grubby, cheap comic book only adds to the allusion of not really trying to be mature or respectable in any way.
As for restless, rebellious ’80s filmmaking, I’m all on board in the abstract. For it would be precisely this relentless immaturity and rock ‘n’ roll spirit that could make the end product the beguiling otherworldly beast it clearly wishes to be. The kitschy free-form spitfire of the whole thing, less a story than a storytelling mechanism, has an undeniable potency when unleashed full-bore. For instance, the categorical MVP is “B-17”, an all-out horror that is, if nothing else, the most lovingly realized, carefully crafted segment of the film, and clearly the one the animators enjoyed the most during production. The often static, hard-lined animation (still impressive considering the state of animation in 1981) also fits best here, giving the whole thing a twitchy, jarring vibe when movement contrasts with stillness. And, released in the magical slasher year that was 1981, it manages to be one of the best short-form horrors ever given to the cinema. “Harry Canyon”, meanwhile, is a sufficiently pleasing, boisterous neo-noir that later paid dividends as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Here, the sense of impromptu world building the film vaguely aspires to is on display in fine form.
However, there’s a big but. As prescribed, the carnivalesque episodism of the film can’t but serve as a blessing and a curse; for every sequence that works, the finished product is never more than the sum of its parts, and some of the parts aren’t too pristine either. The whole “it’s gloriously immature” thing ends up playing out less “delirious and weird” and more “lazy and haphazard” at the end of the day, the complete lack of a through-line or stable tone not so much inducing cheerful anarchy as a headache. Much of the film, too much, is simply groan-inducing, the two comedy numbers “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” and “Captain Sternn” being the worst offenders (although the latter is at least, in principle, off-kilter in a way that could have been compelling if developed properly).
The bigger issue are the two show-piece numbers, the idiot fantasy of “Den” (probably the most classic Heavy Metal magazine style story on display here, to give you a sense, if nothing else, of how this all can’t really be said to be a “let-down” for fans of the comic book who are already stricken madly in love with its immaturity) and “Taarna”, which is filled in only with broad strokes. Those strokes are, at least, genuinely compelling, but this is an outline and not a finished feature (if I was feeling particularly zippy and fresh I might call it a fascinating bit of cinematic Impressionism, but I always do that, and Heavy Metal is well too lazy to earn that here). As for the linking narrative, I deeply admire the whole construct that a demented little green orb that promises death to the world and boasts a generally mystifying ambiguity to its promises regales the tales to a little girl, for no reason at all, and does so not with shock and awe but clinical mundanity. It’s as if this is all just part of his morning routine before going off to slaughter a few million here and there. Still though, there’s that damn laziness surfacing everywhere, meaning that once the construct is established, the follow-through is pretty lame, and the wraparound never goes anywhere.
That’s Heavy Metal in a nutshell though. It promises a lot and the edifice of it all is wholly pleasing. If nothing else, I’d love that every year saw a film such as this, all interested in bit-sized samples of world and character at the expense of deep story or self-seriousness, but the execution here occasionally borders on turgid. The animation is as often draggy as it is lovely, and the titular heavy metal can induce cringes, trading in a thoughtful selection of bona-fide metal fury for B and C Tier schlock (even the good bands don’t always get good songs). Even worse, most of it isn’t metal. More films could use an aural blast of primal power, and here it’s downright inexcusable. Unfortunately, that’s merely one example of Heavy Metal not playing to its best features, and not the most glaring.