You don’t need to be a metalhead to enjoy this harrowing true story about how one black metal band went too far to prove they weren’t mere posers following the latest musical trend. Inspired by the controversial book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground, director Jonas Akerlund brings to life the legacy of the band Mayhem and its contribution to the Norwegian black metal scene in the early nineties. Beyond its influential music, the band is most notable for its involvement in a series of crimes ranging from arson to murder. With visceral direction and engaging performances, Lords of Chaos blends comedy, tragedy, and a dash of psychological horror to tap into the darkness that fueled the music as well as the music that fueled the darkness in a generation of troubled youths.
The film is narrated by Mayhem founder and guitarist Oystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin) also known as “Euronymous” as he guides the audience through the history of the band, his hatred of what he considers “life metal,” and the search for a new lead singer. He discovers Per “Dead” Ohlin, a melancholic Swede who possesses an unhealthy obsession with death. After Dead’s gruesome suicide, Euronymous views his death as an opportunity to promote the band’s image and authenticity rather than as the tragic loss of a friend. Soon, a wide-eyed admirer who calls himself “Varg” (Emory Cohen) approaches Euronymous, eager to please. Despite Euronymous being initially unimpressed by Varg’s appearance (even criticizing him for have a Scorpions patch on his jacket), he listens to his demo tape and is blown away by the innovative sound. It isn’t long before Varg’s desperate need for approval becomes destructive when he begins displaying disturbing behavior and a hunger for committing crimes. Euronymous’ cultlike “Black Circle” of followers begin to feel that they too have to prove themselves in order to maintain respect in the metal community.
Aside from the music history lesson, the true core of the film focuses on the obsession with perception vs. reality when it comes to one’s image. Like any subculture, the metalheads try hard to prove that they aren’t just sell-outs jumping on the bandwagon but also have to realize that they actually are. While Euronymous fronts like he is a morbid servant of Satan, he really is an all-bark-no-bite businessman who is aware of what sells. Throughout the film, it is shown that the Mayhem members all live with their loving parents who financially support their endeavors. It is one of the many instances of privileged kids desperately wanting to find identity, community, and authenticity and going to extreme measures to acquire them.
Lords of Chaos is a headbanger that will make you raise up the devil horns
For a film that focuses on Mayhem’s Norwegian pride and their desire to give Norway a distinct place in the metal scene, it seems odd and distracting to hire American actors and have them keep their American accents. Regardless, Rory Culkin gives a sympathetic, layered performance as Euronymous and Emory Cohen manages to capture the brainwashed darkness beneath his babyfaced innocence.
Whether or not you know the first thing about Norwegian black metal, it won’t get in the way of you appreciating Lords of Chaos. Akerlund successfully depicts the viciousness surrounding Mayhem’s tragic story without being histrionic and manages to maintain a self-deprecating good sense of humor. Lords of Chaos is a headbanger that will make you raise up the devil horns but hopefully not make you want to burn down a church.