I’ll admit, other than appreciating the odd festival where you’ll find me buzzing in the corner of a beer tent, I don’t really do ‘hard’ music. There are a few macabre maestros I hold in high esteem, but my awareness of Death Metal, Norwegian Black Metal, and everything in-between were (and are) quite limited. Non existent, even. I had absolutely no knowledge of the events that took place surrounding the black metal scene in the early 1990’s. Lords of Chaos was a complete blind viewing for me – and hot damn were those kids hardcore.
Lords of Chaos is inspired by the Biography of the same name by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind published in 1998. Based on true events, both recount a series of increasingly deviant and criminal acts by a small group of musicians branding themselves as Black Metal in Oslo, Norway between 1990 and 1993. Everything came crashing down after the group imploded in a metal mutiny of Hamlet proportions; stabbing their own self-appointed leader 26 times in the head, back and neck – killing him in the stairwell of his apartment.
Before we get too into the film, I should probably define Black Metal (in case any of you, too, are as completely in the dark as I). What separates it from Death Metal? Goth Metal? The Other Semi-Precious Metals? Black Metal is described as an extreme sub-genre of heavy metal music. Thank you, Wikipedia. It often includes heavily distorted guitars, fast tempos, a shrieking vocal style, and lo-fi recording. Musicians of the genre typically adopt pseudonyms of a Biblical, Pagan or Medieval nature and wear “corpse paint”; cool gothy skull make-up. Like the band Kiss – but meaner. One of the biggest identifiers of a Black Metal group or musician is the vocal embodiment and expression of extreme anti-Christian views, advocating various forms of Satanism or Paganism. Though, some argue the ‘Devil Worship’ is only the means by which to convey a polarized view of conformity, society, and ‘selling out’. The devil don’t do Dollar Daze.
Though I’m still kicking myself for not having stumbled across the Wikipedia page or a late-night Subreddit blackhole on the story – here’s how Lords of Chaos – the film, by esteemed music video director and former drummer for Black Metal band Bathory, Jonas Åkerlund, portrays the birth of black metal:
Lords of Chaos is a tragedy. Even if we don’t know the true story by which the film is based on going in – our narrator and protagonist, Øystein Aarseth, better known as Euronymous (Rory Culkin) leads us into his re-telling with a matter-of-fact, retrospective nature. He must be dead.
In 1984, Euronymous forms the band Mayhem. It will take many shapes and forms over the years, and be speculation to much hearsay. Mayhem is the birth of Black Metal. Particularly for why it gained notoriety: the band’s macabre, morbid, and definitely medically, actually depressed lead singer Dead (Jack Kilmer), slits his wrists. And then throat. And then shoots himself in the head with a shotgun.
Euronymous, upon discovering the grisly scene, sees Album Cover instead of Emergency. He runs to the shops to grab a disposable camera, stages the scene a bit, and snaps some photos of his former bandmate in a state of peaceful unrest. He also makes a few casual calls while the obliterated corpse of his friend and (I guess?) colleague lays slumped on the bed in the background.
I will say, watching this scene unfold while blown up in a dark and quiet movie theatre was one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever experienced with a film. I’m not excessively squeamish by any means, but Dead’s suicide is a visceral one, for many reasons. Yes, the special effects are gruesome, bloody, and confronting. But what I think upsets me the most, is leading up to Death’s suicide – he displayed real, identifiable signs of depression. Audiences hooted and cheered at the silly, macabre jokes as he and his bandmates riffed pre-suicide – but I found myself thinking.. “Where are these kids’ parents?”
When we finally watch Death wrench the blade across his wrist, his neck, and then grab a shotgun ’cause the first two attempts weren’t quick enough – we aren’t surprised. We’re shocked, yes. But what we really are is disappointed. (“I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” – Dad) Who failed this kid? Is it society, for turning a blind eye to his passion? Is it his passion for evoking and normalizing depression and suicidal tendencies? His bandmates for egging him on? Or us, the viewer – for taking entertainment from the dramatization of a young man’s suicide twenty years later? (..Excuse me while I go and delete the 20+ true crime podcasts I have downloaded to my phone)
Ultimately, I think this is a big question Lords of Chaos poses. Where does the line of Black Metal being a creative outlet end, and the line of it instigating violence, hatred, and negativity begin? Much of the film, these kids look like posers – eventually egging each other on towards real criminal, violent behavior – and ultimately murder. But throughout they just seem like kids. Kids hanging out in a basement, drinking beers, appreciating music. We all did this as teenagers and young adults. Some of us even with Corpse paint, maybe. (..Probably not but I’m trying to be understanding, here.)
For Euronymous, Death’s suicide is an awakening. A publicity stunt for the non-sellouts. They haven’t gone too far, they’ve only just begun. He makes necklaces for his bandmates and his inner circle from pieces of Death’s skull. But apart from those necklaces, which are likely just animal bone anyways, Euronymous is all talk. He’ll have to fight to retain leadership of Mayhem, and the other bands that grow under the Black Metal banner after he opens his record shop and delinquent hangout: Helvete. Tension only surmounts as Varg (Emory Cohen) joins the inner circle, hellbent on proving himself worthy.
Varg is babyfaced and easy to underestimate when we first meet him. His bulky denim jacket, natural brown hair, and youthlike demeanor would have us think he’s just a bit of a loner who likes rock music. But he’s quick to prove to Mayhem (and us) that he’s truly Black Metal. He ain’t no poseur. Immediately after being invited into the inner sanctum, he orders Euronymous’ wannabe-girlfriend Ann-Marit (Sky Ferreira) to strip naked. Varg isn’t playing around, and not afraid to threaten what belongs (“air-quotes” ’cause girl power) to others.
Tensions surmount as Euronymous struggles to wield control of the group after Varg takes credit for a local church burning. And then another. And another. In order to stay at the top of the foodchain, Euronymous is going to have to get his hands dirty or risk being overthrown.
“Lords of Chaos is confronting, upsetting and sometimes hilarious – creating an complete confliction in those who watch it. “
Lords of Chaos is confronting, upsetting and sometimes hilarious – creating an complete confliction in those who watch it. Rory Culkin is expressive and raw as movement frontman Euronymous, but it is Emory Cohen’s Varg that keeps us up at night. His turn from babyfaced teen to full-blown arsonist and killer is utterly disarming.
The story of Mayhem is definitely one worthy of being told, reinterpreted, and examined – and this film does it in a way that is not wholly glamorizing. It doesn’t skip the messy parts. But maybe in the end, that is glamorizing? Oh man, this is getting too metal for me.
Lords of Chaos held its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!