Having been a fan of black metal for years, and having heard and read the stories of Mayhem and their violent, over-the-top antics, I couldn’t wait to see how Jonas Åkerlund's (Spun, Polar) adaptation of Lords of Chaos would compare the book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. Knowing that Åkerlund had spent some time as Bathory’s drummer in the mid-'80s, Bathory being a band credited with heavily influencing the genre, I had really high hopes that he would deliver, and not stray too far from, what was considered by fans the "true black metal narrative" of the infamous events.
Oslo, 1987. Seventeen-year-old Oystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin), better known by his stage name, Euronymous, forms an abrasive and provocative band named Mayhem and creates a new and soon-to-be notorious genre of music: Norwegian Black Metal. He's joined by band equally fanatical youths, including Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), better known as "Dead", Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg (Anthony De La Torre), and Jorn "Necrobutcher" Stubberud (Jonathan Barnwell). Believing that they're on the cusp of a musical revolution, the group gets even darker, driven by the black metal dogma to spread evil. One of their very first live gig is marked with savagery and mutilation, as Dead uses a pocket knife and a broken bottle to slice up his forearms while severed pig heads are thrown into the crowd.
The band is dealt a literal blow when Dead, who had been obsessed with death all of his life, commits suicide in a insanely graphic way; slicing his wrists and throat, then blowing half of his head off with a shotgun. Euronymous gets the vile idea to use this as part of the band’s legend and ungodly mystique, snapping photos of Dead's corpse and distributing skull fragments to the other members of Mayhem. Necrobutcher doesn't take kindly to Euronymous exploiting their friend's suicide and leaves the band. Following Necrobutcher's departure, a new lineup is born when Kristian "Varg" Vikernes (Emory Cohen), the one-man black metal outfit Burzum, joins Mayhem on bass.
Driven by a desire to spread corruption and fear, The newly formed "Black Circle," a delegation of Norway’s extreme black metallers, begin burning down historic churches throughout the countryside and stealing tombstones for Euronymous' record store, Helvete. Soon, what began as a means of expressing aggression and radicalism, takes an even darker turn as Varg is determined to one-up everyone, leading to more arson, murder and pure sadistic mayhem.
Though not a horror movie per se, Lords of Chaos deals with many of the genre tropes. It's gory as can be, and portrays violence in an ultra realistic manner. Self-mutilation is shown with deep, unpleasant cuts that may make even the most hardened gorehound feel a tad bit queasy. When someone gets stabbed, they're stabbed multiple times, in scenes that are painful to watch and go on for uncomfortably long periods of time. As his sanity is pushed to its limits, Euronymous begins having schizophrenic nightmare visions with montages of frightening images. The film's sound is belligerent and as in your face as Mayhem's music. All of these elements come together to create a jolting cinematic experience that could certainly be seen as a horror film to those unfamiliar with the genre.
There were many things I loved about Lords of Chaos and the way Åkerlund portrayed the brutal true story. He chose not to glorify these characters, instead presenting the black metal scene as a group of poser try-hards who were unaware of their own jokes and absurdity. Åkerlund doesn't deify the young men or romanticise their acts, or at least that's the message I got while viewing the film. Euronymous and Co. weren't really Satanist even though they wanted to be seen as cool, edgy Satanists, but in the end, they were all just deranged individuals desperate to make an impact. Dead’s suicide, Faust’s vicious murder of a gay man, and Varg’s church burnings and eventual killing of Euronymous’ are all despicable, hapless acts that turned these teenagers into underground legends in the metal scene.
Admittedly, I had my reservations in regards to the casting of a bunch of popular American actors barely out of their teens, but was pleasantly surprised, as performances are strong all around. Yes, there's abundance of distracting American accents, but it's apparent that the director intended to reach and appeal to a wider global audience than just Norway. High praise is due to both Culkin and Kilmer, with the former bringing subtle nuances to Euronymous while the latter, according to real-life acquaintances, completely captured the specter of mental illness and morbid personality of Dead. Cohen also delivers a solid performance as the Neo-Nazi, piece of shit that is Varg Vikernes, bringing an unsettling, unpredictable intensity to the table. Ultimately, making me despise the real Varg even more so than I did before viewing the film. I also wonder if Varg would be upset to know that his character was portrayed by a Jewish actor. I really hope so!
I guess one could say that Lord of Chaos also works as an overly dark comedy. Of course, it isn't hilarious but it's good for a snickers. Granted, we probably shouldn’t laugh since this film is based on a true story involving the deaths of real people. Moving on. Åkerlund manages to keep things lively and fun when they need to be and yet, the film still holds true to the unnerving tone and mood of the band and its human components. The script is mindful of other fraught details, specifically the toxic masculinity that contributes to the inevitable "pissing match" that emerges between Euronymous and Varg. I also appreciate the time that is taken to deepen the characters through various intimate moments, even if the romance between Ann-Marit (Sky Ferreira) and Euronymous seemed a bit silly to me. I had to keep reminding myself that these were teenage boys, who were interested in girls.
Another highlight of Lords of Chaos is how good the church burnings look, and I'm unsure if that's a great thing for me to say. Yes, it was a complete and utter tragedy that historic, beautiful churches in Norway were burned down, but that being said, the burning buildings are magnificently shot, and the setpieces before the burnings are masterfully executed. A well-deserved round of applause for the crew members who contributed to these strong elements of the film.
It would've been easy for this film to be a horrendous and total failure, yet Åkerlund implements a number of directorial flourishes and lightens the tone just enough to counteract the disturbing true events. And I must say, even though I knew how this story ended, the climactic finale was aptly horrifying and gruesome all the same. While all of this took happened nearly thirty years ago, I feel the story of Mayhem and the rise of Norwegian Black Metal still rings true for a lot of today's rebellious youth. The black metal genre may be the subject of mockery among metalheads nowadays, but this film is a jarring reminder of its disturbing and grim beginnings. Lords of Chaos is a captivating, suitably dreadful glimpse into a shocking and terrifying corner of music history.
Lords of Chaos is now available on most major digital outlets, as well as Blu-ray / DVD combo pack from MVD Visual. The release contains the unrated version of the film and 11 director's teasers and trailers. The 1.85:1 1080p image is fairly clean, though slightly unpolished, which seems rather fitting for the subject matter. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track packs a pretty substantial punch, with dialogue coming through clear and balanced, and the blaring metal soundtrack featured front and center. Subtitles are available in English and French.