If the 80’s Satanic panic ever actually manifested into something real, it might look a lot like the Norwegian Black Metal scene of the early 90s. Outside the outrageous rumors of rampant animal sacrifices and baby murder, were true crimes of arson, murder and suicide. At the epicenter of these heinous acts and crimes was the band Mayhem. The band went through the gambit of line-up changes in a brief amount of time, with members like Necrobutcher, Attila, Blackthorn, and other absurd dark, fake names. But they’re not the ones narrating LORDS OF CHAOS through the turbulent early years of Mayhem, it’s Euronymous (Culkin).
For those familiar with the story, it’s a bit odd having Euronymous, real name Øystein Aarseth, as the film’s narrator. For those who don’t know the story, I’ll keep the reason why it’s odd, a secret. What you can know is that he’s one of the founders of Mayhem and inevitably one of its most iconic members. Another iconic band member, Dead (Kilmer), real name Per Yngve Ohlin, joins Mayhem, bringing a style all his own that Euronymous seems envious of. Dead wears corpse paint, cuts himself on stage sacrificially and throws pig heads into crowds to get the few hundred attending a Mayhem show riled up. His tenure is short-lived as Dead kills himself, leaving behind a suicide note that reads, “Excuse the Blood.” Of course not be outdone, Euronymous snaps a photo of the suicide scene so that Mayhem can have a sick EP cover. But Dead’s suicide gives way to the next iconic member of Mayhem, Varg Vikernes (Cohen).
Based on the book of the same name, LORDS OF CHAOS is a brisk two-hour tale that even fans of metal with knowledge of the story will be riveted by. For fans of metal, they’ll enjoy the bleak inside jokes and noticeable nods to other acts of the time, like Emperor or Darkthrone. Director Jonas Akerlund started out in the Swedish black metal scene, which came a few years before the Norwegian scene, as drummer for Bathory. Living through that time has given him an insight into the scene depicted on film, as well as some subtle digs at the members of Mayhem and surrounding clique.
Despite my own personal bias and interest in the subject material, I believe LORDS OF CHAOS has a lot to offer to others as a shocking slice of real life. So what’s at the core of this dark moment in obscure music history? It’s a tough message and outcome to explain. What inevitably happens to the members of Mayhem isn’t a bi-product of true evil or something devilish, it’s a symptom of male insecurity that’s manifested from several different dark elements such as nationalism, bullying, and depression. The three featured band members didn’t necessarily come from bad homes or grow up in a rough society. Thanks to socialist policies, they were able to live comfortably, buy a house, open an unprofitable record store, and remain relatively healthy and well-fed.
Director Akerlund doesn’t quite humanize these people to the point we feel pity by the end, but instead we understand that they were deeply flawed individuals who refused to confront their own personal demons before those demons manifested into dangerous actions. LORDS OF CHAOS doesn’t shy away from the bigotry, pettiness, misogyny or other deep character flaws. Those flaws are actually on full display thanks to a cast that reflects misery in silence and blank, solemn stares.
Instead, LORDS OF CHAOS confronts these real life people with humor and sadistic irony. LORDS OF CHAOS could be viewed as a twisted coming-of-age story about teenagers who got caught up in their own juvenile egos. However, Akerlund doesn’t dig any deep into the morals, ethics or psychology of these people, as it shouldn’t because it risks muddying its sly intentions. LORDS OF CHAOS serves as a slightly exaggerated historical look at an outrageous subculture with a clear-eyed leer at the emotionally fragile and weak young men who made it infamous.