How familiar you are with the notorious origins of black metal in Norway might depend entirely on how much of a metal fan you are in the first place. Most metalheads are at least marginally versed in the story, as its place in the hallowed history of metal makes it so legendary that only a poser (a common insult in Lords of Chaos) would be unaware of it. For everyone on the outside, however, Lords of Chaos serves as a pretty solid primer on the more newsworthy events of the Norwegian black metal scene.
Based on the book of the same name, Lords of Chaos follows the increasingly elaborate black metal scene from its humble beginnings in the basement of musician Euronymous (Rory Culkin) to the full-on cultural terror that fit in perfectly well with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Euronymous (no, that’s not his real name, and everyone in the scene has stage names, which we’ll be using here for simplicity’s sake) starts the band Mayhem with a few other disaffected metal head friends. They have a unique sound, but it isn’t until Swedish vocalist Dead joins the band that things really take off. A dangerously unstable young man, Dead is pathologically obsessed with death, and Lords of Chaos does not downplay his onstage antics in the slightest. If you’ve never seen Dead in action, footage still exists of him stabbing, cutting, and mutilating himself during performances, though it is not for the squeamish.
Dead’s disturbed mind takes black metal to all new heights, and before long, Mayhem is the most extreme thing in the entire scene. Swathes of metalheads show up to witness the spectacles, which include inverted crosses and a severed pig’s head during the early stages. Though this might sound like typical shock rock stuff in this day and age, the passage of time sees things spin even more wildly out of control, resulting in arson, suicide, and murder.
Lords of Chaos’ director, Jonas Akerlund, adds an extra layer of credibility to the proceedings as they are dramatized. As a member of early black metal band Bathory, Akerlund was there firsthand for the early days of the genre, and has had a rich history of working with musicians as diverse as Madonna, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Beyonce, and Iggy Pop. Though you may not know it, you’ve almost certainly seen at least half a dozen of his legendary music videos.
Here, he tries his hand at a more dramatic undertaking, and like his other most notable effort, Spun, the results are decidedly mixed. As noted above, there is indeed a rich history to draw from in the early days of black metal, but some shaky choices in direction and screenplay give Lords of Chaos a rockier landing than one might hope for.
For starters, the narration element becomes a crutch the film leans on a bit too heavily. A lot of scenes are punctuated by Rory Culkin narrating as Euronymous, a factor that at times becomes too much of a distraction for its own good. Also, certain scenes are set to overly dramatic music, seemingly to will us into emotion rather than actually motivating it. The problem with this is that in a movie like Lords of Chaos,it comes across as particularly disingenuous. There are few (if any) likable characters in this story, and even if you relate to their positions or enjoy their music, you will not be likely to sympathize with them. Euronymous is a pretentious showman, Faust is a hateful homophobe, and Varg Vikernes is still known today for his white nationalism.
Still, Lords of Chaos does have bright spots in its treatment. Akerlund has shot a film that is truly breathtaking at times. Juxtaposing the haunted Norwegian country side and the spectacle of the church burnings with moments of truly brutal — and totally un-sensationalized — violence allows the events of the story to take on a certain gravitas.
The way the camera lurks without judgment during some very graphic scenes adds an almost voyeuristic feeling to the film, and there are scenes that will live with the viewer long after the credits have rolled — particularly for those unfamiliar with the source material.
Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen and Jack Kilmer all put in believable performances that help you to understand (if not quite empathize with) their real life counterparts. Like many movements and scenes, black metal was essentially the brainchild of bored, rambunctious teenagers, and while some fans may have marveled at (or even admired) the lengths that some of these musicians would go to, few would dare to follow in their footsteps. It’s always great to see Sky Ferreira as well, but like in last year’s Baby Driver, her appearance here as a scene kid and semi-professional photographer really just makes you yearn for her to finally record a new album after all of these years. And speaking of music, post-rockers Sigur Ros punctuate the soundtrack from time to time, and while that can contribute to the aforementioned feeling of overdramatization, their melancholic reverberations are a welcome contribution in any film.
While Lords of Chaos might not perfectly nail this story factually or thematically, as a primer on the most notorious events of the black metal scene, it will serve as a dark doorway for some to a truly fascinating topic in true crime history. Those better versed on these lurid tales, however, might instead opt to check out the book of the same name, the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, or Last Podcast on the Left’s fantastic re-telling of these same events.