I suppose that what you will take from Lords of Chaos all depends on what your relationship to “the scene” is. Opinions range from “The movie is full of shit” to “It’s fucking brutal.” From an outsider looking in, Lords of Chaos ultimately is about a group of manchildren that take themselves too seriously, and eventually too far.
The film’s main focus lies with guitarist Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin), who went by the stage name Euronymous. He was the founding member of the band Mayhem. Euronymous called himself the creator of “True (Trve) Norwegian Black Metal,” a style of music that relies heavily on fast melodic riffs, screeching vocals (vokills), snare blasts, and low production values. Oh, and Satan. Euronymous was carefully crafting his image as some evil legend in the music scene. The first act of the film surrounds his relationship that he builds with his would-be vocalist Dead (Jack Kilmer). Dead was a melodramatic lad who reveled in being depressed, killing cats and talking about killing himself. Dead had a magnetic personality combined with extreme stage antics which worked to elevate Mayhem above the typical garage devil worshippers. Dead kills himself, which gives Euronymous the opportunity to take pictures of his brainless corpse.
If you can tell that I’m getting bored about writing a synopsis for this movie, you would be right. This is a subject that has been discussed ad nauseam over the past few decades. If you are unfamiliar to the story, the briefest breakdown I can give you is that another poser named Varg (Emory Cohen) impresses Euronymous with his Burzum demo and becomes bassist for Mayhem. Varg becomes overly enthusiastic in trying to impress his new friends, so he starts burning down ancient churches across the Norwegian countryside, making Euronymous jealous of his EVIL. Bard Faust of Emperor stabs a man to death. Things escalate from there.
But is it any good? Yes, surprisingly, but in all honesty the advertising campaign did not do this film any favors. The fact that I am praising it at all seems like a minor miracle because every trailer and promotional images that were released seemed like a goddamned joke to be honest.
Again, if you are familiar with the material, this film tries to hit each beat. I don’t feel it is the reviewer’s job to tell their life story in a review, but to give some background I was exposed to black metal in high school. I was curious about all forms of music, but I was gravitating towards the extreme. I was pretty much a poser in every scene I tried to join. A friend of mine suggested I try out Bathory or Darkthrone. “A Blaze in the Northern Sky!” He shrieked as he played the air guitar and stuck his tongue out in a sneer. When you’re a young adult, that doesn’t look as stupid as it sounds. My curiosity was piqued, I bought as many black metal albums as I could to learn as much as I could. Eventually you would hear out about that band where the guitarist ate the vocalist’s brain and the bassist burned down churches for Satan and stabbed the guitarist in the head in his underwear.
The second half of the nineties saw a book entitled Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynahan and Didrik Søderlind. It was the must-read book for lovers of extreme music, and by then I was much more well versed. The book was an impressive mix of music journalism and true crime authorship. The book touched upon music, murders, and political extremism in metal around the world. A few years ago I would have been surprised that these events would have been turned into a film. There was already a documentary that had explored the subject with Until the Light Takes Us, but as a feature film?
Well, here we are.
Lords of Chaos was directed by Jonas Akerlund, and to give you an idea of his pedigree, Jonas was a member of the band Bathory during the time when Bathory was still laying the foundation of what would later become the black metal sound we know today. If you are unfamiliar with black metal, the film itself won’t really do you any favors. The film remains more focused on the infamous events that brought gave the subgenre its legendary status, but the actual music can only be found in small portions of scenes. Hearing snippets of “Pagan Fears” or “Funeral Fog” doesn’t really show why Mayhem are still talked about today. There is all the insane shit that “went down”, sure, but De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is a pretty impressive album for the time and sits unique in the genre. On my old campus radio show I used to joke that black metal is only as good as your stereo, but there were some exceptions.
Given that Jonas Akerlund has “street cred” in regards to the genre, he casts what seems as both an earnest yet cynical eye on the subject matter. The film is punctuated by dark humor which paints the band members as less than the legends they saw themselves. An example can be found hen Dead gives Euronymous a pep talk in front of a mirror wearing corpsepaint. You’ve seen it in the trailer when he says “We are Lords of Chaos!” It is more of an awkward moment than an encouraging one and the film is peppered with moments like these. The trailer focused on the ironic aspects of the film, which in turn makes the film come across as a laughable endeavor. In reality, these moments seem to “cut through the bullshit.” Approaching Lords of Chaos with a skeptical eye was a wise move. If you have been exposed to black metal iconography, the minimal black and white images with “claws” outstretched to the full moon are in reality much sillier behind the scenes. These are kids that are full of shit that somehow captured lightning in a bottle while at the same time proving themselves to be megalomaniac assholes in the process. It’s a disjointed affair, but as a film it works. There are moments of fantastic imagery of band members admiring the flames of a burning church, or moments of extreme violence. Akerlund was wise to allow the death scenes to be visceral and brutal. Metal fans tend not to shy away from violent imagery, and Akerlund allows the camera to linger on the blood and gore for much longer than what would be comfortable or necessary. The final confrontation between Euronymous and Varg pays off particularly well, the special effects here are superb. Not only are the effects superb, but the whole scene pays off in such a way that it rivals even some of the classic pre-cert “video nasties” of the eighties. It’s gritty and grimy and goes way too far.
That being said, how accurate is the film? I suppose only Varg and his hairdresser know for sure. The people who are alive still have skin in the game. Varg has gone on the record about how the movie is bullshit. I am sure other band members have given their opinion, I guess the real answer depends on which gatekeepers you believe. For me, I throw my hands up at the prospect. At this point, who really cares? The surviving members of Mayhem are bigger than they ever were and continue to tour and produce new material. Varg has his ThuleanPerspective YouTube channel where he can spout his nonsense and become a living meme.
I suppose that when you approach something along the lines of music history, you can take the story in the direction of the legend or the truth. Lords of Chaos claims to be based on both “Truth and Lies”, but in it’s own way, and possibly unintended, throws a little shade at both. A wise decision to be sure because nobody involved will be happy, no matter what direction it went. Who cares? Lords is goofy and sinister and it is a film that is better than it has any right to be.