It’s hard to remember now where it was I read that first article on Norwegian black metal back in the ’90s because since then I’ve read and watched everything I could find on the subject. It’s an irresistible story, lurid and somehow equal parts goofy and macabre. Some Norwegian kids got into satanic heavy metal, took it way too far, burnt down ancient churches, put an actual headless suicide corpse on an album cover, and eventually started killing each other. Ahh, the music business!
It’s that story, of Euronymous, the band Mayhem, the record store Hell, Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh, Death, and the whole Norwegian black metal gang, that director Jonas Akerlund (Spun) and his co-writer Dennis Magnusson set out to tell in Lords Of Chaos (adapting from Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s book, though they didn’t keep much beyond the title and information from some of the primary source interviews).
The film has apparently been in development for quite some time, and for good reason: the details of this story are unforgettable. It’s hard to hear any of it without wishing it was a movie. At some point in the early ’90s, there was a Norwegian black metal band called “Mayhem.” When its singer, Dead — who used to bury his stage clothes and dig them up before shows so that he could more authentically embody his stage name, and was known to huff a dead bird he kept in a bag — blew his head off with a shotgun one day, his guitarist, Euronymous, took pictures of Dead’s corpse and made it Mayhem’s next album cover. There were other, more lurid rumors as well — about Euronymous eating Dead’s brains, about him making necklaces out of the pieces of Dead’s skull. These were comfortable, middle-class Norwegian kids from stable families who did all this seemingly because they were just really bored. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
The obvious challenge for depicting this kind of material is tone. This story can either be incredibly serious or incredibly goofy — kids who had evil lurking within them all along, or kids who just got way too into a goofy subculture. Akerlund, with Rory Culkin narrating as Euronymous (that’s the Culkin from Waco, not the Culkin from Succession) smartly takes the “Glenn Danzig buying kitty litter” approach to this material.
You can be both disturbed and impressed by the principal characters’ commitment to evil, but that just makes it funnier to see them do the unavoidable normie stuff like buy kitty litter or eat pancakes with mom. One of the underpublicized aspects of this whole story is that most of the Norwegian black metal crew was living with, and largely bankrolled by, their parents, even as they burnt churches, threw raw pig’s heads to their audience (who as depicted in the movie, devoured them), and pledged allegiance to LORD SATAN. Jonas Akerlund, who was the original drummer in the Swedish proto-black metal band Bathory before he became a full-time filmmaker, probably has unique insight into these characters.
Emory Cohen plays the other major player in the story, Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh. Cohen, who was so perfect as a meathead guido in The Place Beyond The Pines and later as the young version of your grandpa in Brooklyn, is once again completely unrecognizable from previous roles, as the initially pathetic, eventually terrifying Varg Vikernes.
Lords of Chaos‘ take on Vikernes is a novel one, especially as Varg likes to present himself as something of an intellectual anti-Christian Nazi pagan these days. In Akerlund’s telling, Vikernes seems to embody Gore Vidal’s famous take on Teddy Roosevelt: “give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight.”