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Sundance 2018: ‘Lords of Chaos’ Turns Mayhem’s Story Into Black Metal Tragedy

Jonas Åkerlund’s horror-movie biopic on Norway’s notorious Mayhem turns tale of murder and metalheads into one gruesome, intense ride

Sundance 2018: 'Lords of Chaos' turns story of Norwegian black-metal pioneers Mayhem into a gruesome, gonzo true-crime ride. Our review.

“I was brought into this world to cause chaos and suffering,” the kid with the lanky black hair and tight jeans says, watching his friends goofing around in his suburban bedroom. He doesn’t look like much of a destroyer of kingdoms and universes, to be honest; just another young dude with bad skin and a very intense look in his eyes. But this Norwegian teen named Øystein Aarseth is about to help give birth to a subgenre of music that he hopes will be regarded as the sound of pure unadulterated evil – “True Black Metal,” he calls it. His band’s name is Mayhem. His stage name is Euronymous. “This will not end well,” he says in voiceover. He’s not lying.

Based on Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book on the origins of a scene that would soon become notorious around the world, Lords of Chaos charts how that pimply kid and his pals put on some corpse-paint make-up, downtuned their guitars and crafted a doomy, shrieking, heavier-than-hell noise that spread its seed far past Scandinavia. Yes, along the way some churches were burned, horrific murders committed and friendships ruined … but that’s the risk you take when you make influential art, right? If you’re like Euronymous (Rory Culkin), you pray – to Satan, or whomever your respective demon-deity is – that your music is heard and appreciated by the right metalheads. And if you’re like Kristian Vikernes (Emory Cohen), a.k.a. Varg, a.k.a. the Count, you take Aarseth’s “poseur” teasing and dismissive taunting of your Scorpions jacket patch as a challenge: So you think you’re evil? I’ll show you evil. 

If you know what happens next, from Varg forming his own one-man black metal outfit Burzum to eventually stabbing Euronymous to death in 1993, then you just sit back and “enjoy” the ride that the movie’s in-house lord of chaos, Jonas Åkerlund, sets up. (Fun fact: The filmmaker was once in the seminal black-metal band Bathory. You’re welcome.) If you’re coming to this particular world as a curious bystander, you’ll be shocked by both the sheer nihilism on display and the contradictory silliness that the film emphasizes was an inherent part of this burgeoning subculture. Speaking in a flat Midwestern monotone – the movie jettisons any attempt to give the characters accents, thankfully avoiding a sort of Swedish-Chef–muppetathon – Culkin’s Dark Conjurer of Pain will loudly declare to his cohorts THAT THEY ARE MAKING THE TRUEST OF EVIL MUSIC AS THEY STAND IN THE BLACK CIRCLE! The director then cuts to a scene of Euronymous sitting in a drab record-store office or a brightly lit kebab shop, another moody teenager looking ridiculous and out of place. It’s rebellion as a come-as-your-favorite-Nordic-corpse costume party. They just happen to be dead serious about it.

Speaking of Dead: That was the nickname of the band’s first singer Per Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), who perfected black metal’s guttural-to-falsetto howling style and inspired Euronymous to go full King Diamond with the facepaint. And it’s in the movie’s first half, when Dead joins the band and indulges in hobbies such as smelling carcasses and self-mutilation, that Åkerlund starts to apply the gonzo, grotty style that he’s perfected in music videos (see the Prodigy’s infamous “Smack My Bitch Up” clip and his take on Metallica’s “Turn the Page”). Even when Per takes his own life – first casually slitting open his forearms and throat, then reaching for a shotgun – the sequence is presented with a chilly distance that somehow feels partially feral. Later, a power-mad Varg brings home a female photographer (“We don’t have groupies,” Euronymous insists, disgusted at the notion) and forces her to disrobe. Åkerlund makes sure viewers see the angry cyst on her buttocks. Sex is not pretty. Neither is homicide or acting out in the name of Hail-Satan dick-measuring.

By the time one of the metalheads who hangs out at Aarseth’s record shop and watches Dead Alive in a loop starts going all thrill-kill-cult, Lords of Chaos has already laced Mayhem’s mayhem with a moralistic sense of cause-and-effect. It never outright states that too much heavy music and splatter flicks equals arson and opening arteries, but the film certainly doesn’t flinch from showing kids giddily adopting “evil” personas before upgrading to committing acts of actual IRL horror. Viewers can draw their conclusions, it suggests, but hey, enjoy the second-hand rush of cinematic craziness while you’re at it! 

How black-metal fans who don’t, you know, burn down churches on a weekly basis will take that notion, along with the fact that there’s little actual Mayhem music (per the producers, some songs were licensed from band members and Euronmyous’s estate, with “stems” re-recorded by other musicians; Varg has said in a YouTube clip says he denied the filmmakers permission to use anything he was involved with*) shows up in the film, is anybody’s guess. What Culkin, Åkerlund & co. deliver is less a biopic than a horror movie. As the story of a band run amok, it’s decent enough. But as a true-crime case study that happens to involve headbanging, upside-down crosses, vandalism, delinquency and some bitchin’ concert t-shirts, Chaos reigns.

*This was updated to correct an earlier statement saying no actual Mayhem music was included or licensed for the film.

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