For all the fanaticism surrounding horror films and heavy metal, it's hard to come by a truly good heavy-metal horror film. That's because most of these films were made in the 1980s, when general audiences still thought horror and heavy metal were dumb, loud, excessive and possibly Satanic. Some of these perceptions are accurate—even today. Genre fans can be far too forgiving of weak plots, dumb songs and technical shortcomings. Some horror filmmakers and heavy metal bands seem to bank on this, putting brutality, blood and volume above technique and quality.
Sometimes that's fine. Films like Trick or Treat, featuring Gene Simmons as a radio DJ and Ozzy Osbourne as a metal-hating televangelist, and Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare, starring bodybuilder/heavy-metal musician Jon Mikl Thor (subject of the recent documentary I Am Thor), are deliciously cheesy. But cheese and camp detract from the merits of heavy-metal music and horror films.
That doesn't mean you can't put horror, comedy and heavy metal in a blender and come up with something truly special. Deathgasm, the loud-and-proud guitar- and grue-fest from New Zealand filmmaker Jason Lei Howden.
Howden grew up in the 1980s, the golden age of VHS, Video Nasties, and heavy metal. He had his horror fandom awakened at age 9 when he watched Peter Jackson's hyper gory 1987 horror/sci-fi film, Bad Taste, in a department store. "Some irresponsible store employee must have stuck a tape on," Howden says in Deathgasm's production notes. "I just stood there stunned. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I watched until the very end, and I think that was the moment my mind was corrupted." Soon afterward, Howden discovered the music of Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Emperor and Deicide. In high school, he was the outcast with dark fascinations—until he met like-minded Marcus, a big, tough alpha-metalhead who picked up chicks with Slayer lyrics.
Howden's high school experiences form the basis of Deathgasm's plot: Brodie (Milo Cawthorne), who lives with his fundie Christian aunt and uncle, forms a metal band with his friends—including Zakk (James Blake), the Marcus analog to Brodie's Howden. They break into the dilapidated home of a former rock star and steal sheet music for an unrecorded song that turns out to be a demonic invocation. Ancient evil is awakened, splatter ensues, Brodie and his titular band—joined by a total babe—have to save the world.
It's the most trite of heavy-metal horror plots, raising Hell. It's also simple. But it works. The main characters aren't caricatures; they have just enough depth to be interesting—credit both Howden and the cast, who approach their roles with glee. The dialogue ranges from functional to punchy and even hilarious. The entire film is beautifully shot. The pacing is quick, tight and satisfying, recalling both versions of Evil Dead (Main Reactor, who did the F/X for the remake, also worked on Deathgasm). The blood is copious, the guts are glorious and neither is gratuitous.
Best of all, it's a love letter to horror, heavy metal and its fans. Howden, writing from personal experience (aside from the saving-the-world part), puts his personal touch into the film, deftly balancing simplicity and sincerity. He signals his devotion to horror and metal fans throughout the film with well-placed posters and T-shirts that nod to bands and films that only serious fans would know, like technical death metal-legends, Death; and Howden's childhood inspiration, Bad Taste. (Incidentally, Howden also once worked for Jackson's visual-effects company, WETA Digital.) .
Few, if any, heavy-metal horror films ever treated fans with such respect. A smart, fun film that, yes, panders to fans but doesn't treat, or portray, them like idiots, Deathgasm is a simple stroke of genius, and may go down as the best heavy-metal horror film of all time.