Metal Movies: “The Holy Mountain (La Montana Sagrada)”

Metal as a musical art form is as visual as it is audial: image is nearly as central to the feeling of the metal as is sound. Consequently, it should be no surprise that a large amount of metal imagery originates in film and that movies can frequently become the basis for much of the optics of metal. Since the very creation of the genre, movies of all sorts have played a key role in metal’s maturity; bands write concept albums about them, sample dialogue from them, and even pay homage to them in music videos. In this new series, we’ll explore the movies that have had the greatest impacts on various aspects of the metal aesthetic, ranging from the psychedelic to the macabre and from the depressive to the epic.

Even if you’ve never heard of it, the chances are that if you’re into metal in general, doom metal in particular, and stoner doom specifically, you’ve probably witnessed references or allusions to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s landmark 1972 psychedelic road trip, The Holy Mountain. Sleep wrote a whole album after it, Agoraphobic Nosebleed devoted many of their songs to it, and several bands even named themselves after it (Holy Mountain, The Holy Mountain, Holy Mountains, holymountain, just to name a few). Even if not explicit in their inspiration, the movie’s heady psychedelic imagery has provided inspiration for many thousands of sun-baked stoner doom bands: check out the imagery invoked in the music of Orthodox, Om, Naam, et al. The film’s mixture of Buddhist mysticism, Latin Catholicism, ‘70s counterculture excesses, and straight-up absurdism filtered through a Dadaist lens, has in many ways provided an integral facet of the stoner metal aesthetic. There’s a lot to see and a lot that only makes sense on repeated viewings or with extended research into related topics, and even then, some of it is still unexplainable. However, it is this almost ritualized, mystical surrealism that has made the movie so influential in the doom scene, and it is indeed an influence worth exploring in full.

To summarize The Holy Mountain is pointless: so much of the film cannot be explained with a mere synopsis as so much of it is clearly just an excuse to field the phantasmagorical images displayed. Plot is secondary to visual. There is a twist ending, but it’s so ludicrous that one can’t describe the movie without pointing out this ending. As far as anyone can tell it, the general narrative is this: we meet The Thief as he awakens in a city much like Mexico City (but not). He wanders the streets aimlessly, going from one sacrilegious event to another (fat peddlers of Christ statues, gangs of prostitutes, etc.) until he arrives at the tower of The Alchemist, played by Jodorowsky himself. Attempting to rob The Alchemist at first, The Thief is quickly overwhelmed and is convinced to become The Alchemist’s disciple. Together, the two summon seven of the world’s greatest industrialists/venture capitalists, introduced in lengthy segments with colorful (if not obvious) caricatures of capitalist excess, to join them on an epic quest to The Holy Mountain, where nine immortals sit at the summit and guard the secret to immortality. After much trial and spiritual struggle (which includes humping the mountain and getting sprayed in the face with jaguar breast milk, among other even less describable occurrences), the group reaches the top, only to discover the twist: there were no immortals and they’ve been in a movie this entire time. Jodorowsky explains the situation, and bids the group to disperse, informing them that “real life now awaits us.” In other words, first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

So, what makes this movie “metal”? Being conceived in 1972, it predates all but the earliest metal albums (and its lack of wide distribution means that Ozzy, Iommi, Dio, et al. probably didn’t see it on initial release), and does not contain any music that could be considered metal by really any stretch of the imagination. Also, it’s neither a horror movie nor a historical epic (though the extent of its vision does make it fairly epic in its own right). Rather, what Holy Mountain has in its favor is that it is a psychedelic mindfuck of the caliber that Sleep could only dream of conjuring (no pun intended). This movie is the end result of every 420 smoke-a-thon, every slightly askew acid trip, and every first attempt with DMT. After the success of his previous film, El Topo, Jodorowsky was provided with a large budget and the artistic freedom to do what he wanted in a film… Having been experimenting in Eastern religions and mind-altering substances, he took this freedom and ran halfway around the world with it. Allegedly he dropped acid every day of the shooting, and frequently insisted on having his cast partake of acid and psilocybin for various scenes (nearly resulting in an extra being castrated in one case). If one thus wants a psychedelic movie, this would seem to be the codifier. There is spectacle. There is gore. There is esotericism. And indeed, the visuals seen within stimulate the metal mind for religious mockery and transgressive aesthetics: a parade of gas-masked soldiers march through the city carrying crucifixes adorned with real dog carcasses. A militaristic order recruits boys to its ranks, castrating them and setting them loose on protestors. The Alchemist sits impassively on a throne made from two rearing goats. Aztec lizards are annihilated by Spanish toads in a grand recreation of the Conquest of Mexico. Just stick a Naam or Electric Wizard track over it all, relax and float downstream.

More on Holy Mountain, including a full stream of the classic film, as Metal Movies continues

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