Lords of Chaos (2018) is the fourth feature from director Jonas Åkerlund, and charts the inception of Norwegian Black Metal in the early 1990s. The movie attempts to shine some light on mysterious progenitor Øystein Aarseth a.k.a. Euronymous, Oslo’s infamous record shop Helvete, and the bands that sprung up around it. But mostly it’s a segway into the outrageous, headline-grabbing events that brought Norwegian Black Metal to the attention of the world.
Based on the book of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind (but omitting the salacious subtitle The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground), Lords Of Chaos is a hard film to categorise because as the creaky old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. So it emerges as part musical biopic, part thriller, part horror movie. It’s the age-old story of teenagers being dickheads, large egos running rampant, money, suicide, church burning and murder.
Perhaps best known for his music video work, Jonas Åkerlund is responsible for videos from everyone from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, by way of The Prodigy. Surprisingly, Åkerlund is also a totally appropriate fellow to be helming Lords Of Chaos. As the original drummer in the fledgling iteration of Swedish metal legends Bathory, he featured on their first recorded appearance on the Scandinavian Metal Attack compilation. Although he had departed by the time their seminal self-titled debut LP emerged. Bathory would later be a prominent influence upon the same Norwegian Black Metal bands featured in Lords Of Chaos.
The story of Lords Of Chaos is Euronymous’s (Rory Culkin) and we join him in the early days of his band, Mayhem, charting the ill-fated period with lead singer Dead (Jack Kilmer), through to the ascendance of Black Metal in Norway, and his rivalry with Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) a.k.a. Count Grishnackh. By focussing on Euronymous, Lords Of Chaos successfully humanises a character who has remained shrouded in mystery, settling on the opinion that his participation in the criminal activity was reluctant and much of his reputation was based on cultivating an image of evil rather than enacting it for real.
Like nearly all biopics, things do feel a bit rushed in places. The early days of Mayhem go by pretty quickly, due to the time period covered, which unfortunately can’t be helped with so much to fit in. But it does mean the onscreen relationship between Euronymous and Dead suffers a little. Their friendship could do with a little more weight to it in order to fully feel the impact of the events that end it.
Åkerlund’s choice to use American actors is curious, but once you’re on board with this as a stylistic choice, the performances from Culkin and Cohen are excellent. Young men in the midst of something great, but corrupted by their own egos, petty jealousies, and paranoia. They allowed the situation to escalate, crossing the line between talk and action as events spiralled rapidly out of control. Culkin manages to make Euronymous both controlling and a bit of a dick, but also rather sympathetic at the same time. While Cohen portrays Vikernes as petulant, childish and deluded. Not a kid out of his depth, but a genuine bad apple.
To its credit, Lords Of Chaos does not glamourize the criminal acts. The violence is as uncomfortable as it is protracted. Administering 23 stab wounds to a person is a drawn out process, and a hard thing to watch. The onscreen bloodletting is both graphic and sobering.
But Lords Of Chaos is also quite funny at times, mining a rich vein of gallows humour and bringing some much needed levity to the proceedings, to offset some of the pomposity and give the audience a breather. It is funny to see these very serious individuals and the scene they created, crunched up against normal life — interacting with the postman, spelling out the name of their new record, borrowing money from their parents. It doesn’t always work – there are times when the movie laughs too much at its subjects – but for the most part Åkerlund skilfully handles the shifting tone.
The movie itself is stylish and Åkerlund’s music background serves him very well in presenting Mayhem’s live assault as a blur of kinetic editing and moody stage performance. We even get a nice little homage to The Evil Dead (1981) with Euronymous’ dreamscape flashbacks to walking in the forest.
Although Lords Of Chaos is respectful of its subject matter — faithfully recreating famous photos from the time and making the Mayhem live experience look as authentic as possible — the audience is never really given a sense of how groundbreaking this music was. The exposure in Kerrang is covered and Euronymous talks about tape trading with other bands but it’s all very abstract. Even now, Mayhem’s Deathcrush EP. is a twenty-minute monster of a record, splicing death metal with the terrifying what-the-hell-am-I-listening-to oddity of G.I.S.M.s Detestation. While the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas LP is simply genre-defining. The greatest irony in the whole story is that these bands would have found their audience regardless of their criminal infamy. The music was wild enough to stand on its own, and the rise of the internet in the following years would do far more for them than the headline-grabbing ever could.
The reason for the lack of attention to musical detail is likely because the bands did not want to participate in the film. Varg Vikernes has been a loud opponent of the movie — although that’s hardly surprising because there’s no version of this story that makes him look good — and Fenriz of Darkthrone has also voiced his disapproval repeatedly. Therefore, the likes of Darkthrone, Emperor, Thorns, and Immortal have been expunged from the film’s timeline. It is not even mentioned, for example, that Bård Eithun (Valter Skarsgård) a.k.a. Faust was in Emperor, despite being a prominent character in the movie. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much in terms of the bigger picture, but to the layman it might seem the entire Norwegian Black Metal scene was comprised only of Mayhem and Burzum.
For a long time, the book was the definitive account of these events, not least because it was the only account of these events. So Lords of Chaos the movie is a faithful adaptation of this source material and all of its alternating truths. Fortunately there are now other perspectives on these events available and those interested in further reading could do worse than to check out Jorn Stubberud (Necrobutcher)’s archival memoir The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-94, or Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries, collating the infamous Norwegian metal fanzine.
In some ways this film, and Euronymous’ story, is the best revenge he could ever have against a still unrepentant Vikernes — turning their super serious and mysteriously evil scene into a movie to be enjoyed by ‘posers’. Therefore, Lords Of Chaos is likely to polarise the fans, and those hoping for some insight into the music might find it a bit lacking. But when all is said and done, it’s a gruesome and outlandish true crime story that is by turns humorous and savage. As a movie it is very entertaining, but as an accurate document of events? That’s still anyone’s guess.