Nearly every travel guide of Norway bears at least a passing reference to the wave of church burnings that swept the country in the early Nineties. Frommer’s even names one of the arsonists, Varg Vikernes, adding that he was a Satanist who went to jail for murder. To many Norwegians, Vikernes is the country’s Charles Manson, the ultimate boogieman.
That’s because he was at the center of the nation’s most terrifying wave of homegrown terrorism, which filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund (Spun) has dramatized in his new movie, Lords of Chaos. It tells the story of the band Mayhem, the country’s most prominent and notorious purveyors of black metal — a subgenre that’s a distant cousin of devil-worshipping death metal and speed-racing thrash — and it focuses on the band’s most troubled period. Murder, suicide, cannibalism, general acts of morbidity (such as someone huffing a bag with a dead crow in it) and, of course, arson overshadowed the band’s music from 1987 to 1994. Their story inspired a couple of authors to co-write the true-crime book Lords of Chaos in the late Nineties, which loosely served as source material for the movie.
And Åkerlund, you would assume, has all the bona fides to tell the story right. He’s directed gnarly music videos for metal groups Candlemass, Metallica and Rammstein, as well as Prodigy’s forever-problematic “Smack My Bitch Up” clip. And he was a founding member of Bathory, a pioneering Swedish black-metal band that inspired Mayhem (though he left the group after a year). Somehow, though, he made a movie that, to paraphrase an album from the director’s former musical endeavor, has seriously missed the Black Mark.
The film focuses on guitarist Euronymous (Rory Culkin), as he assembles Mayhem and attempts to instill the values of devil worship in his bandmates. Along the way, he enlists the depressed, bird-corpse-sniffing Dead (Jack Kilmer) as the group’s singer and locks horns with the bloodthirsty Burzum frontman/future Mayhem bassist Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen). Chances are good that if you’re reading this, you already know the rest of the story. If not, spoilers abound ahead: Along the way, Dead kills himself; Euronymous saves (and savors) pieces of the singer’s cranium; Vikernes and members of other bands torch churches; and the bassist ends up ruthlessly stabbing Euronymous to death. (Spin wrote a good overview of the whole scene in 1996.)
The film has also included the incident where Faust, a fellow arsonist and the drummer for black metallers Emperor, killed a gay man. And for some extra Hollywood glitz, Åkerlund has given Euronymous a girlfriend, played by Sky Ferreira. (The real-life Vikernes has said that his girlfriend at the time never met Euronymous and that he was never aware of his bandmate dating anyone; in an interview in the Lords of Chaos book, he alleged that Euronymous was gay, though his opinions are suspect since he, y’know, murdered the man.)
The film is sort of black metal’s answer to Bohemian Rhapsody, in the sense that Åkerlund and cowriter Dennis Magnusson took the tent poles of the story and filled in the gaps however they saw fit. They nailed the sound of the film, with a great soundtrack of black-metal legends (augmented, oddly, by a Sigur Rós score), as well as its look by meticulously replicating photos that headbangers have pored over for decades. But they colored the pictures in with their own guesses as to what actually happened. Although interviews with Mayhem still exist in zines from the time, not to mention the nonfiction chronicle that details the band’s rise and fall, the film has chosen its own voice for the characters — and it is decidedly Midwestern.
Aside from a few blatant chronological oversights (where are pre-Dead singers Messiah and Maniac?), one of the biggest problems is the dialogue. While it’s true the band members were in their early 20s at the time of the story and young men are prone to saying goofy things, it’s hard to imagine anyone proclaiming anything as corny as, “I created a whole new genre of music: True Norwegian Black Metal,” out loud. Nobody refers to this music as “True Norwegian Black Metal.” And it’s even worse coming through Culkin’s wimpy American accent. (Other than the setting, the film never really feels European — a death knell when you’re attempting to depict a regional scene its creators are intimately familiar with.)
And then there’s scene where Dead looks in the mirror and declares, “We are Lords of Chaos” — a downright bizarre titular line considering the title of the book, which is far more wide-ranging than simply the story of Mayhem. It refers to the name a group of eight teens in Florida who bestowed that name upon themselves in 1996, five years after Dead’s suicide. For anyone who’s read the book (not the best source material, mind you, considering the credence it gives to neo-Nazis, which the authors didn’t counterbalance until a later revised edition) — don’t expect a Godfather-worthy adaptation.
But perhaps the film’s worst sin is its tone. At times it’s an explosion of fun, such as when the band plays a concert adorned with pig’s heads and splatters blood on the audience. Others times, it’s outright dismal — a dour slog that fails to capture the rebellious energy of the music or the scene. Åkerlund never seems to make up his mind about whether these were a bunch of dumb kids running amok or if you should actually care about them. It’s never clear if the audience coming to the story for the first time is supposed to think their actions are awesome or shameful — though the “cool” burning-church animation in the end credits suggests the former, we guess? (Here’s the place to point out the film was produced by Vice.)
Although it makes the case that Euronymous let things get out of hand in his brinksmanship game with Vikernes, you somehow don’t feel deeply about him when he dies. Åkerlund attempts to make Hollywood heroes and villains out of real-life people, and it doesn’t really work. The inherent problem with Lords of Chaos is there’s no real “Hollywood” way of telling the band’s story. Some of the band members were murderers, some were arsonists, some claimed to be cannibals — it’s shocking, yes, but there’s so much more to it than sensationalism. All this was going on at a time when the biggest thing in metal was Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” How could such a starkly underground scene develop within the same genre? The film doesn’t just diminish the impact and importance of the music — it doesn’t seem to care about the music aspect at all.
It would be a more affecting movie if you saw more of what happened after the murders and arsons. Vikernes was put on trial and began espousing neo-Nazi rhetoric. He escaped in 2003, yet was nevertheless released on probation in 2009. Meanwhile, Mayhem’s drummer, Hellhammer, pushed to release the band’s genre-redefining full-length, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, which featured Vikernes’ playing on it — much to the chagrin of Euronymous’ family — in 1994. The band reformed (without the ex-convict bassist); they continue to be a concert draw. And then there are the families of the victims, still grieving after decades and who never get a voice in films like this.
Since the film was announced, Åkerlund has faced criticism for wanting to dramatize this story. “I will do everything I can to stop this film,” Mayhem’s founding bassist, Necrobutcher, told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Tell the Swedes and the Hollywood people to go fuck themselves.” The filmmaker later said he’d since gotten the band’s support for the film (the band Malparidos re-recorded their songs for the picture) and that he’d been in touch with Euronymous’ parents and Dead’s family. “I’ve been trying to treat it with respect as much as I can, especially because people have lost family members,” he said. (Incidentally, Mayhem singer Attila Csihar is thanked in the movie; his son, Arion, plays him in a recording-studio scene.)
But Åkerlund presents it all with an underlying antipathy toward the subject matter. It’s not fun. It’s not sad. A lot of the time, it’s not even all that interesting. But the slow pace and dead space gives you time to think about what the story truly means — or, for that matter, about how else you could have spent the cash on what it costs to go to the movies. After all, $25 pays for a lot of matches and gasoline.