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Monsters of Metal: Parental Paranoia and Horror’s Oddest Subgenre

By  · Published on September 8th, 2016

A path to 1986’s Trick or Treat.

As His Majesty, The Fresh Prince, once said, “there’s no need to argue, parents just don’t understand.” His royal words proving all the more profound when it comes to metal music and horror cinema.

In the 1980s, after watching its popularity decline in the wake of the inception of punk and the popularity of disco of the late 70s, heavy metal rose from the grave to achieve unprecedented levels of mainstream popularity. The ground was so fertile, that new subsets and specific offshoot varieties of metal began to take root. Among these burgeoning subgenres were death metal and black metal, both of which feature often featuring violent, sometimes satanic lyrics.

To the parents of young metal fans, this was akin to cutting off a hydra’s head only to witness in terror as several new heads generated. The backlash against metal music exploded into full-on youth panic, with parental watchdog groups denouncing all metal and warning that any teen who listened to this “devil music” would likely be brainwashed into a pattern of delinquency at best; satanic cult at worst.

It is ironic how quickly so many 80s parents bought into this frenzy. Many of these folks grew up in the founding era of rock-and-roll and were subjected to the same overzealous condemnation of Elvis Presley. Who knew that one man’s pelvis would be key to society’s collapse? Turns out, as with most instances of youth panic, Elvis and rock-and-roll did not in fact incite anarchy.

There is a kismet in heavy metal rising to prominence in the 1980s, which also happened to a watershed decade for horror cinema. Horror films have, since the creation of the moving picture, been a cathartic exploration of the things that frighten us as a society. If one were to track the trends in horror films from the 1950s to present, they would have an effective timeline of the changing hierarchy of societal concerns; atomic warfare, the violence of Vietnam, space travel, the dissolution of suburban safety, cloning, etc.

As a reaction to the panic surrounding heavy metal youth culture, the mid 80s saw the birth to one of the oddest and, in this writer’s opinion, most delectably enjoyable subgenres of this barometric film genre: heavy metal horror. These films recognized that the interests of horror cinema and black/death metal cross several spheres on a vign diagram: apocalypse, occultism, death, torture, etc. Case in point, this was the era in which bands like Alice Cooper and Dokken started appearing on the sequel soundtracks of the decade’s heavy-hitting slashers.

Coupling this with the rampant parental fear, films like Demons, Black Roses, The Gate, Hard Rock Zombies, and Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare expertly walked the lucrative line between courting heavy metal fandom and simultaneously serving as cautionary tales wherein heavy metal was the catalyst for evil being visited upon our world. Granted, in many of these films, metal culture is exaggerated or in some cases completely misrepresented. Demons goes so far as to feature a fan with an actual steel plate in his face; apparently hysterically misunderstanding the term metalhead.

One interesting outlier however is 1986’s Trick or Treat. In the film, Eddie, a teenage metal fan who is persecuted at his high school, has his world turned upside down when his hero Sammi Curr, who represented the one haven from Eddie’s otherwise oppressive existence, dies in a hotel fire. Eddie gets hold of the studio acetate of Sammi’s last record and discovers that, when he plays it backwards, he can communicate with Sammi. Curr imparts advice onto Eddie as to how to get revenge on his tormentors. As one would expect, this initially welcomed dalliance with the occult spirals out of control and Eddie ultimately must do battle with the now demonic Sammi who is let loose in the world of the living.

What allows Trick or Treat to stand apart is that while it is executing an effective horror story, the movie is also not-so-silently snickering to itself at the idea that metal music is the gateway to destruction. The basic premise both plays to and mocks one of the principal terrors shared by almost all high-moral metal detractors: backmasking. Parents all over the country were terrified that secret backwards messages hidden in metal records were subliminally programming their children. Hilariously, it turns out the most famous example of supposed backmasking was contained not in an album by Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, or Motorhead, but instead in a Beatles record. Breaking news: Paul is still not dead.

The story was conceived by Rhet Topham, who also gave us the horror comedy 976-EVIL. The script is loaded with self-aware jabs at both heavy metal music and the fervent anti-metal agenda. Ozzy Ozbourne himself makes a cameo as a televangelist asserting that metal musicians are evil and must be stopped. There is also the fact that our antagonist sells his soul to the devil in order to achieve demon status…only to use those dark powers to torment a high school dance (the same high school Sammi himself once attended) and drive a station wagon menacingly around a neighborhood? That’s some low-rent demoning, Sammi. It’s goofy as all get out and has all the reverence for death as a Monty Pyton sketch. One moment featuring an incinerated elderly PTA member being vacuumed up by the Willie-Aames-esque best friend is wonderfully absurd.

Trick or Treat seems to gleefully roast the notion that metal music is corrupting youth and poses any real threat to the fabric of society. It pokes fun at metal culture too, but simultaneously respects it. There is an authenticity to Eddie and to the metal stage presence of Sammi (played by former Michael Jackson backup dancer Tony Fields). The soundtrack by band Fastway is, while not reaching either black metal or death metal levels of severity, is loud and fast and infectiously fun. The film also features a smattering of posters for real metal bands of the era and a cameo by Gene Simmons as the local metal radio station disc jockey.

To delve deeper into the dark recesses of Sammi Curr and the hilariously misplaced fear of metal music, listen to our Junkfood Cinema podcast episode on Trick or Treat!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episode covering an additional movie from the summer of 1986, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.