There’s no more definitive retelling of the violent, terrifying, and musically fertile second wave of black metal in Norway than Lords of Chaos, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderland’s 1998 oral history. Last year, the true-crime account was finally adapted into a film by music video director Jonas Akerlund, with Rory Culkin portraying Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Jack Kilmer playing Mayhem’s Per “Dead” Ohlin, and Emory Cohen in the role of Nazi murderer Kristian “Varg” Vikernes. But while the book is a reputable recounting of one of music’s craziest cultural events, the film left much to be desired.
It’s not that Lords of Chaos is a terrible movie; in fact, it gets a lot of things really right about what black metal was, and who the people behind it were (the fact that many well-known metal personalities hated it so much is perhaps a testament to black metallers not wanting to admit these soldiers of darkness were over-emotional teenagers). But it also includes a lot of straight-up fictional bullshit, and is at the end of the day a film about black metal by people who love the genre’s cultural shock value more than the music itself.
This being the anniversary of Euronymous’ death, here are 10 things that Lords of Chaos got right and wrong about black metal…
Right: Dead’s depression (and Euronymous’ reaction to it)
It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the theatrics of Per “Dead” Ohlin, original singer of Mayhem–he’d bury his clothes to smell more like a corpse and kept a dead bird in a jar. But Dead was also clinically depressed, and Jack Kilmer’s depiction of that is appropriately listless and upsetting. More so, Euronymous’ fed-up attitude towards Dead came off as realistic, an honest depiction of how a teen guitarist with no emotional vocabulary would react to their friend lying around all day.
Wrong: The love story
The most mature and thoughtful character of Lords of Chaos is Ann-Marit, a black-metal pixie dream girl who eventually becomes Euronymous’ girlfriend. Except she never existed — while Euronymous had girlfriends during the second wave of black metal, none of them were this inspirational, Bagger Vance-esque character in his life. Having a female perspective on the second wave definitely would’ve been cool; having that perspective be a fictional character who exists simply to help our protagonist grow up is just kind of awful.
Right: Euronymous’ manipulativeness
Øystein “Euronymous” Aarsteth was indeed the father of contemporary black metal’s guitar tone, vibe–and hunger for attention. Rory Culkin does a good job of portraying Euronymous as opportunistic and manipulative, doing his best to make everyone think he was the mastermind behind the grisly violence of the black circle. The movie also make a solid point of showing how he did so in part to try and save his failing store–and in part for his own desire to be remembered. Hey, nobody said these dudes were angels.
Wrong: Euronymous being emotionally above the scene
The problem with Euronymous being the hero of Lords Of Chaos is that he’s forced to follow the typical hero’s journey arc, where he displays emotional growth and realizes he’s better than all this criminality. Problem is, there’s really no evidence to back this up. More so, it takes something away from Euronymous, making him so self aware as to see the error of his ways. Watching a dude wrestle with emotions without the language or knowledge with which to do so would be more interesting. Instead, he takes some pictures in a cape, and then cuts his hair. Come on, guys.
Right: The black metal terrorists of Norway were just kids
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the metalheads who founded Norway’s violent second wave of black metal is that they were mostly just teenagers. Euronymous was in his early 20s upon the burning of Fantoft Stave Church, but Varg and Emperor’s Ihsahn were still in their teens. That youthfulness fed their nihilism, and it also colored this spree of violence as the most hardcore example of youth gone wild in metal’s history. What were you doing senior year of high school?
Wrong: No Glen Benton? Denied!
One of the greatest anecdotes in black metal history is when Euronymous attended a Deicide show and made frontman Glen Benton feel super awkward with his frosty grimness. This was obviously a moment to cast Jack Black or Jeremy Gardner as the no-nonsense death metal growler…and instead, they didn’t even include the scene! How can you claim this tells the tale of black metal’s timeless legend when it doesn’t involve bothering the shit out of the ultimate heavy-metal devil-worshipper?
Right: Varg the Nazi
Because he’s such a vital figure in black metal’s history, Varg Vikernes often gets cast with an emphasis on nuance and philosophical understanding — basically, ‘We can’t just call him some fucking Nazi, because he made these important albums.’ But Varg was indeed some fucking Nazi, and Lords of Chaos does a fine job of driving that point home. As is the case with most prominent Nazis, his life is depicted as tiny and nice, a sheltered place where ignorance can thrive. Vikernes himself hated the movie, so it also has that going for it.
Wrong: Varg the schoolyard bully
When Varg punches another member of the black circle (we think it’s Ihsahn?) for throwing the Heil and being a wannabe Nazi, every viewer at home kind of raised an eyebrow. We all get that Varg was a dickhead, and hey, maybe he even took at swing at someone, but this idea of him being a skinhead bully felt super projected. Given how many of the tales of that movement are cultural history, that’s the sort of incident fans would probably know about before now. Varg’s shittiness didn’t need to be so emphasized–we’re all aware what a moronic racist chode that guy is.
Right: Honestly, burning those churches must have been kind of fun
Everyone knows burning down a millennium-old church is wrong, and to burn a church today is to show that you weren’t really paying attention to second-wave black metal. But come on–if you were a satanic metalhead in the ‘90s, burning down a church must have been a blast! You must have felt like a soldier in Satan’s army. The scene where Varg and Euronymous watch a church in flames with big, dumb smiles on their faces is an honest illustration of what it must’ve been like taking part in this terrible act of vandalism.
Wrong: Where’s all the black metal?
If there’s one fatal flaw to Lords of Chaos, it’s that there just isn’t enough black metal in it! This movie should’ve been soundtracked with the greatest, most heartrending black metal songs in the genre’s history, showing how cinematic and powerful this music is and therefore illustrating why it has legions of fans to this day. Instead, there’s some metal here and there, but the culture and pageantry takes the main stage–to which we say, BOOO. Where’s “Mother North?” Where’s “Cloak of Midnight?” Give us what we came here for!
Words by Chris Krovatin