I blame it on David Lynch.
Until "Lost Highway," I didn't even know how to contextualize metal as anything more than a mighty but occasional pleasure. But that film's magnificently insane dreamtime imagery opened the floodgates, and suddenly, I understood how certain loud sounds connected to a freighted language of images that in turn connected to all kinds of interior "stuff". By "Lost Highway's" end, I literally stumbled onto Second Avenue buzzed; I was seriously, no-kiddingly "high."
The lockstep tech-metal ache of Germany's industrial titans, Rammstein, was still ricocheting in my cortex while Marilyn Manson, in his disreputable, goth-Ziggy prime, worked the sleazier shadows. And there was Nine Inch Nails pounding away on "The Perfect Drug" which lived up to its name in spades. Everything else just sounded "weak" after that.
(These were my gateway drugs to Mayhem, Enslaved, Isis and beyond, but that's another story.)
I'll say this: if you're a film director in need of an instant jolt of sex, of sadness, of terror, of something really fucking seriously overwhelmingly important RIGHT NOW, metal is your best friend. Whether we're talking highbrow realist, sci-fi, vérité, '80s horror, eerie atmospherics, lowbrow comedy, social commentary or zombies — zombies! — there's pretty much nothing that can't be improved with the application of a little metal.
1. Lilya 4-Ever – "Mein Herz Brennt" by Rammstein
The genius of Rammstein is how their peerless Wagnerian metal pummel and operatic baritone act as delivery systems for an utterly bottomless sense of outraged sorrow. From the start, Lukas Moodysson's nearly flawless film about human trafficking and sex slavery hurls you into a grey, rain-splattered urban purgatory as we follow a girl running nowhere. We see her face already bruised and red, and though we're not even one minute into the film, we already can't stand what she's been through. The most brutally, artfully affective opening in film history? It's up there. Possible without metal? Nope.
2. The Matrix – "Wake Up" by Rage Against the Machine
"The Matrix" planted entire crops of tropes that movies still harvest — in this case, the rolling, super-heavy "Kashmir"-grooved metal elephant as signifier of ultra-triumphalism. See the "Resident Evil" franchise, the "Underworld" franchise, the … oh, fuck it. If there's an apocalypse and someone is kicking ass, especially a fit woman in a cat suit, the sonic Rosetta Stone for how that sounds was set here.
3. Lost Highway – "I Put a Spell on You" by Marilyn Manson
Wiki says it's about a sax player (Bill Pullman) who kills his wife (Patricia Arquette) and, while on death row, starts hallucinating. Whatever. I mean, okay, but that's only an organizing principle amongst several for a system of skits and set pieces and meditations. "Lost Highway" is as much "about" the texture of Arquette's skin against the texture of her satin nightgown as it is about changing identities; about the glisten of blood against the shine of broken glass that's punctured someone's skull, about how precious life is at dawn. It's all those things, a little out of order.
Trent Reznor's soundtrack combines Angelo Badalamenti's richly uncanny orchestrations with a weave of modern rock eccentricities: jungle period Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins, the introduction of Rammstein and Lou Reed-sounding metal over a decade before "Lulu."
But I think it's Marilyn Manson losing his shit on "I Put a Spell on You" — a psychotic power drive of squiggly electronics, O.C.D. waltz-time drums and beyond-distorted guitars/horns — that captures the coiling, crazed erotic soul of Lynch's masterpiece.
4. The Wrestler – "Metal Health (Bang Your Head)" by Quiet Riot
You'd think an '80s glam metal artifact like "Metal Health" would be so spackled with kitsch that its inclusion at the dramatic peak of Darren Aronofsky's elegantly heartfelt elegy for a beaten down wrestler (Mickey Rourke) would be a total fail. But in truth, it makes your short hairs go, "Fuck yeah!" as Randy "The Ram" enters the ring One Last Time. The track explodes like grudging howitzers while singer Kevin DuBrow squees the song's crushed-nutsack screech; dumb-fun metal history does the alchemical with old-school comeback conceit, and, melodramatically, both come out way better for it.
5. Bad Dreams – "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns N' Roses
Before Andrew Fleming made his Wiccan softcore feature favorite "The Craft," he cut his teeth on this better-than-average "Nightmare on Elm Street" cash-in about another girl with fatal dream issues. What I remember about "Bad Dreams" is seeing it at a long-demolished Cineplex Odeon in Manhattan. I tried to rise from my seat but heard a guitar that smashed me right back down into the chair. It was the most remarkable of guitars, a way filthy, overdriven, yet very precisely plucked arpeggio. It was gorgeous, transcendent. You always remember your first time.
6. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – "Hammer Smashed Face" by Cannibal Corpse w/ Jim Carrey
With couplets like "Created to kill, the carnage continues/Violently reshaping human facial tissue," nobody has accused death metal's more extreme goremeisters of being subtle, or even comprehensible without a cheat sheet, what with current vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher firmly ensconced in the Cookie Monster school of vocalizing. But the bruising cartoon menace of the Corpse and the mania that is Carrey meet in a perfect moment in this clip as Jimbo acquits himself just fine as lead growler, proving that if this comedy thing ever peters out….
7. Natural Born Killers – "Something I Can Never Have" by Nine Inch Nails
"Natural Born Killers:" an epileptic grotesquerie using as many ugly techniques as possible to out-gross itself, all in an effort to lay open the most filthy underbelly of a soul-rotting nation…or just to act out a really epic coke binge. It's a toss-up. Regardless, I've always thought this psycho-killer freak-out is Oliver Stone's most honest, revealing film.
The soundtrack is a violently schizophrenic style mash of Jane's Addiction's alt-metal, Duane Eddy's twang, L7's riot grrrl punk, Patti Smith's "Rock N Roll Nigger" and tons more. But the soul of the film is all Nine Inch Nails/Trent Reznor, in particular this ballad (no, Virginia, slow metal songs are not all power ballads) that gives the film the reverberant despairing soul it desperately needs.
With it, you suddenly sense the psychological depth in the story of Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis' gruesome twosome; everything just feels like it "stops" when the song plays. America's pre-millennial tension becomes a dirge and the movie has purpose. I think.
8. Return of the Living Dead – "Party Time" by 45 Grave
There are people who are going to say, "Dude, 45 Grave are totally a punk band," but fuck that because, dude, "Party Time" is a fucking "metal song" in an incredibly metal movie with toxic waste and partying zombies and a girl who begs for and has sex with the dead before they totally eat her to death. Punks have never had sex with anything, ever, and if they did, they wouldn't be nearly as hot as Linnea Quigley, okay?
9. Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors – "Dream Warriors" by Dokken
Seriously, you can't just watch this. You need to prepare, to maybe knock back two fingers of something strong and consider the '80s as a concept, as a gestalt so feckless, naïve and wrongly empowered, so Technicolor-dumbass and cartoon stupid that only America could have barfed it up and gloated, "Yeah, that's me — wanna fight about it?"
What makes the mind reel is that grown-up people who, in less shoulder-padded times, would have been happy with footage of a second-tier hair metal band performing the theme from a cashed-in "Elm Street" sequel were no longer satisfied. "No," they shouted between lines of Peruvian marching powder, "we can do better!"
And better is…this…thing, where a little blonde girl squeals in delight at a forty-something dude in makeup doing his rock face. Where the walls explode and a Dokken dude comes out shredding while the girl claps — "Yeee!!!" Where Freddy mugs, "IT'S A NIGHTMARE!!!" and you wouldn't be surprised if Rod Sterling showed up to do his "Twilight Zone" intro.
10. Valhalla Rising – "Main theme" by Peter Kyed
Before Nicolas Winding Refn mucked around in "Hollywood" with "noir," "movie stars" and other things you have to put in quotes for maximum upward postmodernability, he'd already made a film most people would be happy to kick back and claim a masterpiece, a film that's a before-the-fact neopagan answer to "The Tree of Life: Valhalla Rising."
Through its tale of a boy, a one-eyed Nordic warrior and a group of Christians seeking a crusade in the year 1000 A.D., we see the empty hell on Earth that is the natural world, where a man could go mad not only with the aid of an organic hallucinogen, but with the truth of his insignificance amidst the brutal reality of nature. Where "The Tree of Life" is warm and reassuring, "Valhalla," like its protagonist, is mute, unsparing, alone and apart. Maybe the director needed a trip to Hollywood just to recover from his own art.
For metal heads, the sound of "Valhalla," with the ominous subwoofer hums and the droning, detuned guitar crush crafted by Peter Kyed, is a familiar thing. It's somewhere between the glacial paced chamber doom of Sunn 0))), the unsettling meditations of metal-aligned neofolk masters Sol Invictus and the one-man atmospheric black metal terrornaut, Malefic, who, under the brand name Xasthur, has lent the Cheney years a soundtrack worthy of their horrors.
But I digress. Like the lost and damned in Refn's magnificent film, Kyed's soundtrack extracts the essentials of metal and drops them into a cold world where the gods aren't there to not give a shit. Skål!
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York