Starring Rory Culkin, Jack Kilmer, Emory Cohen, Sky Ferreira
Directed by Jonas Akerlund
Distributed by MVD Visual
Norway, 1987. Oystein Aarseth, better known by his stage name, Euronymous, forms an abrasive and offensive band called Mayhem and creates a new and soon-to-be notorious genre of music: black metal. Horror and heavy metal have always felt like kindred spirits but their union usually brings a kind of pizza-and-beer party vibe; these early pioneers of black metal took themselves gravely serious, unable to objectively see the humor in their own actions. With names like “Necrobutcher” and “Hellhammer” their only goals were to offend the masses and reject “posers”, which is ironic as all hell when the film presents them all as posers to varying degrees. The scene was a terrifying game of one-upping; who amongst us can be the most evil? That unspoken challenge led to a span of years during which Mayhem’s members were individually, and sometimes collectively, responsible for suicide, murder, hate crimes, and the burning of several historical churches. Based on events from the novel of the same name, this is Lords of Chaos (2018).
Euronymous (Rory Culkin) starts Mayhem in the late ‘80s, born out of a desire to be evil and offensive and all other things “TRVE CVLT”. The lineup includes Jorn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud (Jonathan Barnwell) on bass, Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg (Anthony De La Torre) on drums, and Per Yngve Ohlin (Jack Kilmer), better known as “Dead”, on vocals. Their style is raw and primitive, with minimal production and satanic lyrics. One of their first live shows is marked with violence and mutilation, as Dead uses a broken bottle to slice up his forearms while others throw severed pigs heads into the crowd. Euronymous is the de facto leader of the black metal scene, but he’s a showman at his core; the people who surround him are genuinely darker. The group is dealt a literal blow when Dead, who has yearned for the crypt as his life, finally offs himself by slitting his wrists and throat before blowing off his head with a shotgun. Euronymous finds his corpse and uses a disposable camera to take pictures of the body before calling police.
A new lineup is born, this time featuring Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen) of the one-man black metal outfit Burzum on bass. Varg has many ideas and is easily driven to corruption, taking it upon himself to burn down a local church when Euronymous suggests they need to take action; “they” being The Black Circle, a contingent of Norway’s extreme metal members. More church burnings follow. Then, murders. What began as an outlet for aggression and extremism in an environment that was anything but became a faction of “traditionalists” and Neo-Nazis spreading their messages through pure sadistic mayhem.
Director Jonas Akerlund is a perfect choice for this material, since he was once the drummer for Bathory, a Swedish black metal group, and his style tends to run toward the darker side of the spectrum, too. Akerlund doesn’t glorify these kids – because, really, that’s what they are – choosing to present the black metal scene as conglomerate of posers who weren’t in on their own jokes. The only person presented as truly grim is Dead – and he eventually made good on his promises. The brutality of The Black Circle’s actions is unvarnished and visceral – when Faust kills a gay man for making a pass at him the murder is drawn out and painful to watch. This is also true of the scene where Dead kills himself. Akerlund wants to ensure viewers feel this pain and know these are the actions of deranged individuals desperate to make an impact.
The film loses some focus in the second act, though part of this can be attributed to the chaotic structure of Mayhem’s tenure. Moments that could be viewed as climactic in real-world settings are a near constant in the black metal scene – Dead’s suicide, Faust’s murder, Varg’s church burnings, Euronymous’ murder; all reprehensible actions that turned these teenagers into underground legends. Performances are strong all around but particular praise is due to both Culkin and Kilmer, the former for the nuances brought to Euronymous while the latter, according to acquaintances, completely nails the morbid personality of Dead. Akerlund keeps the pace lively while also taking the time to deepen the characters through intimate moments. Even though this isn’t technically horror there is more than enough grossly accurate bloodletting to qualify. Black metal is nothing more than another genre these days, often used as the butt of jokes regarding unreadable logos and corpse paint; this film is a reminder of its grim beginnings.
The 1.85:1 1080p image is fairly clean, even if it isn’t too polished – seems fitting for the subject matter. Akerlund adds a good bit of style to his camerawork, too, giving different passages of the film a unique look. Landscape shots of the Norwegian countryside are beautiful, though nothing is shot more romantically than the church burnings, which are practically hypnotic in their delivery. Blacks look a bit splotchy at night, though. Despite what the back cover says the only audio option is a lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, which packs a decent punch despite being so hampered. Dialogue is clear and balanced and the guttural music sounds appropriately abrasive blaring through the front end assembly. Subtitles are available in English and French.
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