Friday, 12 April 2019

Review: Lords Of Chaos

This post originally appeared at

Lords Of Chaos
Cert: 18 / 117 mins / Dir. Jonas Åkerlund / Trailer

After the comparative rarity of an '18' BBFC card, viewers of Jonas Åkerlund's Lords Of Chaos are greeted with a methodically revealed line of stylistically scratched text. A proclamation, disclaimer and intimation all in one, it reads "Based on truth… lies… and what actually happened". No further clarification is given, the audience being trusted to distinguish these for itself.

Inspired by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind's non-fiction book of the same name, Lords Of Chaos is a dramatised depiction of crimes carried out in Norway during the early 1990s. A string of grave desecrations, church burnings and eventually murders took place, carried out by young satanists obsessing over extreme heavy metal music, while the media looked on in panic and horror. The film follows Øystein Aarseth aka 'Euronyous' (played by Rory Culkin) as the founder and guitarist of black metal band Mayhem. Alongside Jørn 'Necrobutcher' Stubberud (Jonathan Barnwell) on bass, Jan Axel 'Hellhammer' Blomberg (Anthony De La Torre) on drums and vocalist Pelle 'Dead' Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), Aarseth does well, riding the cutting edge of the scene and making enough money to open his own specialist record shop, Helvete (or 'Hell')*1.

But when a seemingly quiet outsider ingratiates his way into the social circle, tensions begin to rise. Kristian Vikernes, aka Varg and eventually 'Count Grishnackh' (played by Emory Cohen) quickly rises through the group's informal ranks with his one-man project Burzum, a musical venture which begins to outshine Mayhem. Wanting to keep his rival on-side and crucially on his newly formed record label, Øystein offers Varg a place in Mayhem. When the latter instigates a series of arson attacks on Norway's wooden churches, what seems at first like uncannily good PR quickly becomes a bone of contention. And when personalities as large as these clash, the outcome will not be pretty…


As noted above, the film is based on historical and heavily documented events. This piece will nonetheless attempt to swerve around spoilers, but potential viewers would be wise to mind the BBFC guidelines. Scenes of extreme violence, self-harm and suicide are graphically depicted here with little-to-no restraint. Whether they're in good or bad taste almost becomes a moot point in a film which circles controversy like a vulture sizing up a dying animal.

But there's no skirting around it, for all its intent to shock Lords Of Chaos is a massively uneven affair. Despite a niche setting in the most extreme of musical subcultures, Åkerlund's film often feels like it yearns to tell its story to a wider audience yet doesn't want to be accused of selling out in the process (a subject raised within the script itself as misanthropic musicians bemoan their lack of finances). As black metal itself can hardly be toned down, there's the feeling that much of the music has been excised so that the film might appeal to a broader clientele.

When the tunes*2 are engaged properly though, the film positively buzzes. A fantastic sequence in the first act shows Mayhem onstage. The erratic editing is a perfect translation of the sensory intensity experienced by fans of the genre, visually pitched for 'civilian' members of the audience who may otherwise have trouble otherwise picking meaning from the noise. Other than this and a later scene with Mayhem in the recording studio, the guitars, drums and mic-stands are little more than occasional props. The music becomes something which happens off-screen, literally the background noise to an escalating feud enacted through furrowed brows and sideways glances. Viewers coming for an in-depth soundtrack are likely to feel short changed.


But in addition to the fury of the overall soundscape, a segment where Øystein has a vivid dream about a deceased contemporary is assembled like an intense and very well cut horror movie. If anything, it's a shame that this entirely fitting approach wasn't extended to the rest of the movie, as it would arguably be a much more interesting film in playing with disturbed characters' perceptions of reality. As it stands, what we get is a rather unremarkable telling of an alarming chain of events, skimming through several years in the life of Euronymous, the story told almost entirely from his viewpoint - certainly on a character-level.

It's Aarseth's narration which welcomes and guides us through relationships that burn brightly and furiously. Yet while the audience are effectively on his side, screenwriters Jonas Åkerlund and Dennis Magnusson aren't afraid to present Øystein's shortcomings on both professional and personal fronts. Likewise with Varg Vikernes, who ultimately becomes our guide's bitter enemy, the only sense of sympathy or understanding evoked is a faintly mocking pity in his early scenes. Elsewhere, there are plenty of characters to dislike, and for a multitude of reasons.


Referring back to the opening title-card, it's almost impossible to know how far the word 'truth' has been stretched here, of course. While the record of criminal activities stacks up alongside their victims, some of the characterisation shown in the film is markedly different to the testimonies of interviewees over the years. Veracity may be implied, but objectivity is notably absent. Naturally, everyone involved has their individual viewpoint and the film should be taken on its own merits. Back in the real world, an ethos of 'Team Varg' vs 'Team Euronymous' developed in the extreme metal scene over the years that followed. This film is unashamedly aligned with the latter.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but seeing the story through Øystein's eyes doesn't seem to lend any unique insight into what happened (and it's certainly true that as Moynihan and Søderlind's book interviews many who were around at the time, that paints a broader and clearer picture). Instead we become observers trapped in a room full of antagonists.

More crucially, while Åkerlund seems to delight in showing the 'how' of the crimes in question, the real 'why's feel almost entirely neglected. While the notion that the perpetrators were actual practicing satanists is ultimately brushed aside, more malign socio-political factors of fascism have since been shown to be at play*3. Yet while these aren't completely ignored, they're given similarly short shrift by the film. And with (often literally) incendiary actions like these, this feels like dereliction to the point of irresponsibility.


Overall, the characters' flaws are painted so overtly that it's hard to say the film is lionising their viewpoints, but neither is it in any rush to condemn them. Little is seen of the mainstream reaction to the crimes, other than snippets of reconstructed news footage*4, and while an audience can obviously make up its own mind whether burning a church to the ground is a bad thing, the only judgement the film observes is some of the band's more 'sensible' contemporaries frowning and tutting. Although with social circles as tight-knit as these, that's quite possibly very accurate.

Ultimately it's unclear what Lords Of Chaos is trying to achieve and who it's really for. While the performances are accomplished enough, it appears that the characters themselves lack depth. Viewers arriving in search of insight or understanding at this late stage are likely to leave with largely the same baggage they brought in.

Fans of extreme metal (either currently or formerly) are likely to find Lords Of Chaos interesting but hardly revelatory. Musical outsiders are likely to get neither experience. As the credits roll, the lasting thought is that this particular story would have been better served by a documentary*5, so that an audience could stand a better chance of picking apart the truth, lies and what actually happened for themselves…

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Imagine the first hour and a half of Bohemian Rhapsody, but with more stabbing.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you're into extreme metal and it's showing near you, sure.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Although you're probably better off that way yes, to be fair.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Let's not go mad here.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's possible.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Emory Cohen's in this, and he was in that Brooklyn along with Domhnall 'Hux' Gleeson.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 It's been put on the record that the management of Helvete looked down on pretty much all music except the most extreme black metal. In Moynihan and Søderlind's book, Aarseth is noted as saying that even though the 'trend' music is an abomination, Helvete would stock it, if only to create capital for the dissemination of true Norwegian black metal. On one hand this could be seen as cynical, on the other downright hypocritical. But when Lords Of Chaos shows is the interior of Helvete, we see Metallica's Master Of Puppets in a vinyl rack in the middle-island of the store, while Kill 'Em All is shown in a rack against the wall on the opposite side of the aisle. What the fuck kind of filing system did they have? I can understand Mötley Crüe's 'Dr Feelgood' being shown elsewhere in the layout if they were sorting by genre, but there's no excuse for two albums by the same band to be separated like that. Imagine trying to find any album in that shop unless is happened to be at the front of the stacks as you looked at them. No wonder Helvete was struggling. They deserved bankruptcy, frankly. [ BACK ]

*2 If that's the right word. A lot of black metal is not so much 'tune' as 'prickly blanket of white noise smothering you while someone kicks a drum kit down the longest concrete staircase in the world'. And I say that as someone with a fair bit the material still in the house. [ BACK ]

*3 Not so much satanists or even heathens, more "neo-nazis with a thing for pentagrams". So a little bit like Wolfenstein, if the enemies in that game were all impressionable and socially awkward man-children. And yeah, they're almost entirely male. You can count the women in this movie on one hand, which I suspect may be one of the areas where an almost documentary-like plateau of realism is finally attained… [ BACK ]

*4 Speaking of which, viewers of a certain age can look out for the two brief clips featuring Adrian Mills. No really, Adrian 'That's Life!' Mills. Adrian 'you've fallen out of the wheelchair?' Mills. Outstanding. If you'd taken young, metalhead-me to one side in the mid 90s and said that in twenty years a Venn Diagram would be created from Esther Rantzen and Mayhem and not be two circles, I'd have thought you were fucking insane. Hell, if you'd told me a month ago I'd have thought that. [ BACK ]

*5 After initially writing this review for STT, I've learned there is indeed a documentary - Until The Light Takes Us - from a decade ago. Which begs the question 'why dramatise it, though?'. Especially when this is the result. At the time of re-posting here, I've yet to see the doc, although if the wiki-page is anything to go by it's very much the 'Team Grishnackh' yin to Lords Of Chaos' yang. It's on my b-list, anyhow. If I have thoughts on it, you'll be the first to know. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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