There is a piece of blurb that flashes up on the screen before Lords of Chaos begins that states ‘Based On Truth… Lies… And What Actually Happened’, and that is actually a pretty succinct description of the early ‘90s black metal scene as a whole. So, if nothing else, Lords of Chaos is at least consistent in keeping with its subject matter.
What is its subject matter? Well, those of you in the know will already be aware of the Lords of Chaos book published in the late 1990’s that detailed the much-publicized goings-on that began in Norway surrounding the second wave of black metal. Featuring bands such as Emperor, Darkthrone, Burzum and, more specifically, Mayhem, the band founded by Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth and who courted the most controversy thanks to vocalist Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin living up to his stage name and blowing his brains out, plus a series of church burnings and the murder of Euronymous by Burzum mainman and former Mayhem bassist Varg ‘Count Grishnackh’ Vikernes. The book also has several interviews with notable people not directly involved with the Norwegian scene, such as Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey and Cradle of Filth singer Dani Filth, to create a fuller picture of the era, its influence, and some possible reasons as to why any of it happened in the first place.
However, many metal fans already know all of that and, having waited several years for this movie to get out of development hell, what they really want to know is if this film is actually any good. The short answer is yes, but much like the music itself, Lords of Chaos isn’t going to appeal to everybody, and not necessarily for all of the right reasons.
Directed by original Bathory drummer Jonas Åkerlund, Lords of Chaos focuses on Mayhem and, more specifically, Euronymous (Rory Culkin), Dead (Jack Kilmer) and Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). The other members of Mayhem are merely sidemen in the battle for scene domination between Euronymous and Varg. The events that made the headlines back in the early 90’s are tackled – the burning down of several churches in Norway, Dead’s suicide, how Euronymous made necklaces out of chunks of his friend’s shattered skull, and away from Mayhem, the murder of a homosexual man in a Norwegian park committed by Emperor drummer Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun. The details that are included stick very closely to what is already public knowledge (with a few small liberties taken here and there for dramatic effect, if any were needed) and highlight the rivalry between Euronymous and Varg as Mayhem started to take off and everyone was trying to ‘out-evil’ each other. Those events are fairly well represented and sensationalized in pretty much the same way that both musicians did at the time.
However, and this is where things may get a bit tricky for black metal purists, there is a tone to this movie that suggests the filmmakers might be trying to make light of much of what went on and who was involved. There is an opening voice over from Culkin as Euronymous speaking from the grave that sets a tone of parody reserved for American comedies, and whilst it is really there to bring new or uninformed viewers up to speed, it does feel incongruous to what unfolds shortly afterwards. Dead’s suicide is extremely graphic and could be one of the most brilliantly realized head exploding special effects of the year, but these scenes of brutality get offset with off-the-cuff dialogue that isn’t too far removed from the heavy-metal-meets-The–Evil–Dead exploits of Deathgasm. The thing with Deathgasm though, was that you knew what you were going to get when you pressed play. Here the light-and-shade tone doesn’t sit too well with what were quite harrowing and tragic events. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that anybody would approach this subject totally straight, otherwise that would be one dark and depressing movie.
Rory Culkin is excellent as Euronymous, giving his strung-out outsider personality a little more of a disenfranchised US teenager slant. It works within the context of the film, making him a little more relatable – if that is the right word – than the other characters, who are really just background and never given much time to do anything other than throw devil horns and shout “SATAN!”. Faust is given a bit more screen time than most due to what happened to him, but it is never really made clear who he actually is or what band he belongs to, as Emperor aren’t referenced at all in the movie. The biggest downside to Lords of Chaos is how Varg Vikernes is portrayed. His political views aside, Varg is probably the most interesting character in the story due to his wanting to be accepted by Euronymous, and then going further than anybody else to prove his devotion to black metal. Emory Cohen, who does not look much like Varg to start with, gives a fairly one-note performance as somebody who seems like he is about to burst into tears at any given moment, and the combination of an underwritten character portrayed badly does take away from, again, what were exceptional events.
However, despite the downsides, Lords of Chaos is actually very enjoyable once you put aside any preconceptions – if you can – and view it as a movie about warring musicians. Then it rattles along at a fair pace, despite being nearly two hours long, with that sly injection of humor doing its job and stopping it from getting too bleak too early on. There isn’t a massive amount of Norwegian black metal music actually in the film, just a few snippets – mainly of Mayhem – here and there with the rest of the soundtrack being filled up with tracks from Diamond Head, Venom, Accept (when is “Fast as a Shark” not a good song to put in your movie?) and Dio, amongst others, which is probably a wise move if you want to get non-black metal fans to part with their cash to see it. There is also a fun cameo from writer/journalist Jason Arnopp, who worked for Kerrang! Magazine at the time, that does give the film a touch more authenticity.
Overall, Lords of Chaos is not the definitive account of what happened in Norway all those years ago and, that movie will probably never get made, so this is as close as you’re going to get. Being based on the book rather than fact – because trying to get facts out of those teenage black metal musicians involved was like pulling teeth – there is room for interpretation, and as always, the truth lies buried beneath the story somewhere, which is probably how Euronymous would have wanted it. As a film, its appeal is limited to music and genre movie fans, and despite Jonas Åkerlund’s attempts to Americanize it with a multi-national cast (who mostly speak fluent English with American accents, strangely enough) it isn’t really broad enough to speak to anybody outside of those interests, especially as it only concentrates on Mayhem and doesn’t give the wider picture of how black metal took off around the world. Still, for those who were there at the time – this writer included – and remember the fury and outraged it caused, Lords of Chaos is still very watchable and highly entertaining.