Even if you’ve never heard a note of Mayhem’s music or don’t listen to black metal, the abrasive subgenre they’re credited with creating, you probably know bits and pieces of the Norwegian band’s brief-but-newsworthy history. They burnt churches. One member killed himself. A second member murdered a third. That second member has since become a lightning rod for modern-day white nationalism and Nazism.
If you’re unfamiliar, here’s the upshot: The first incarnation of Mayhem was formed in 1984 by guitarist Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, who worked with a rotating cast of bandmates. In 1988, Euronymous recruited vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, aka Dead, to sing for Mayhem. In 1991, Dead killed himself with a shotgun. In 1992, Euronymous brought in sole Burzum member Varg Vikernes to play bass for Mayhem. In August 1993, Euronymous was killed in his own home by Varg — stabbed with a knife 23 times. Within days, Varg had been arrested, and a few months later, he was serving a 21-year sentence for the murder of Euronymous … as well as a number of church arsons. In May 1994, Mayhem released their debut album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.
The story of Mayhem has been recounted in several books, documentaries, and podcasts, some of which cater towards dyed-in-the-wool metalheads, and some to the ever-growing demographic of people who, for some reason, are fascinated by serial killers and cults. Until now, it has never been the subject of a major biopic starring American actors. This new film, Lords Of Chaos, premiered at Sundance last year and is scheduled for release stateside on 2/8. It’s likely to reach Mayhem’s broadest audience yet.
Luckily for both the uninformed and superfans armed with fine-toothed combs, the biopic treats its source material, a 1998 nonfiction book by the same name, with reverence. Existing photos of the band are recreated with uncanny accuracy, as are band members’ actual outfits — according to one of the film’s producers, most of the costume budget went towards sourcing authentic band tees from the era. A quote by frontman Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin) that appeared in a 1993 cover story in British metal magazine Kerrang! is uttered verbatim in a scene depicting the original interview. In the book, the racist, nationalistic Varg (Emory Cohen) criticizes Euronymous for “drinking Coca-Cola and eating kebab from the Paki shop”; in the movie, Varg’s penultimate meeting with Euronymous occurs over that very meal. The vast majority of facts that exist in public record, such as the arsons and murders, are painstakingly upheld. Scale models of churches were literally erected and burnt down for Lords Of Chaos. I didn’t have it in me to count, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of stab wounds that Varg leaves on Euronymous exactly matches those on the police report.
If you were looking for an experienced director who was qualified to bring a black metal biopic to life, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a better resumé than Lords Of Chaos director Jonas Åkerlund. Not only is the 53-year-old a Scandinavian with a background in music videos — starting with Swedish doom metallers Candlemass in 1988 and moving onto award-winning, mainstream work with everyone from Metallica to Madonna — but he was also the original (though short-tenured) drummer for Bathory, arguably the proto-black metal band. In his youth, Åkerlund ran in the same circles as Mayhem, and even cast their ill-fated frontman, Dead, in that Candlemass video. He may not have been there firsthand, but his dedication to a factual retelling of events that occurred within his larger social circle is immediately clear to someone familiar with the book.
But with all of the attention Åkerlund gives to recreation of crimes and costumes, it’s surprising how unfaithful Lords Of Chaos is to the music scene it claims to portray. Actual black metal does periodically appear at the periphery of the film, with snippets by Mayhem contemporaries like Sarcófago, Tormentor, Grotesque, and yes, Bathory momentarily blaring out of car stereos and record store speakers. The most foregrounded and recognizable syncs, though, are Dio’s “Stand Up And Shout” during an early party scene, and Sigur Rós’ “Flugufrelsarinn” during a church burning (the Icelandic band handled the score).
The credits show that the film clearly acquired rights to Mayhem’s music, but only one actual Mayhem song (“Funeral Fog”) appears in its original form. The rest we hear are hi-sheen re-records by a band called Malparidos. Audiences, the film seems to say, are ready to see bloody recreations of actual crimes, but not ready to hear the decidedly lo-fi recordings that defined the Norwegian black metal scene. Speaking of that scene, we never hear mention of a single band other than Mayhem and Burzum (Varg’s solo project), even though Emperor drummer Faust appears throughout. If Lords Of Chaos (the book) does anything well, it’s showing how various artists throughout the metal underground reacted to Mayhem’s radical actions and ideas, and Åkerlund’s film makes it seem like all of this happened in a vacuum.
If Lords Of Chaos (the book) does anything poorly — and it does — it’s allowing a lack of distance from its violent interview subjects to influence its tone, and Åkerlund falls prey to the same mistake. One of the book’s two authors, Michael Moynihan, has gone on record as a pro-fascist Holocaust skeptic. The guise of journalistic integrity is maintained for some of the book, but convicted killers are given a lot of airtime and leeway by the lines of questioning. For instance, when Varg (who to this day maintains that he killed Euronymous in self-defense) is asked about his convicted accomplice in the murder, fellow former Mayhem member Snorre “Blackthorn” Ruch, it’s phrased as if convinced of his innocence: “It seems odd you would go to murder someone with an accomplice who was their friend.”
Åkerlund is someone who backed out of the metal world when he was still a teenager, and he seems to have retained the mental of image of rebellious kids adopting “evil” as an aesthetic choice, rather than an ideological one. “All this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun,” Euronymous says in a frustrated tone towards the film’s end. The line at which childish transgressions become dangerous, calculated belief systems, however, is unclear in Lords Of Chaos. “I wanted to make a movie that humanizes these characters because all the documentaries and books that have come out depict monsters and demons,” Åkerlund told Metal Hammer magazine last year, “And the truth is that they were young boys.”
Nowhere is this humanization — or innocence — more obvious than in Åkerlund and Culkin’s depiction of Euronymous as a tragic figure. “I truly don’t believe that Euronymous was a psychopath,” Åkerlund said in that same interview. “I think he was a decent kid that just ended up on the wrong side of stuff.” It’s true that Euronymous, more so than any of Mayhem’s other members, came from a wealthy and well-to-do family, and this is depicted in Lords Of Chaos (“Don’t you fucking puke in my dad’s car, man,” he tells a bandmate early on). But even though we see Euronymous provoking, then making light of Dead’s suicide, taking part in two arsons, and complimenting Faust on his hate crime murder of a gay man, which he was imprisoned for, Euronymous still comes off as merely an attention-seeking blowhard with a good heart.
More than anything else in the film, this is due to Lords Of Chaos’ main glaring factual inaccuracy: Sky Ferreira’s character. The singer/actress portrays Ann-Marit, a peer of the band whom Åkerlund admits is fabricated. She exists solely to humanize Euronymous. The two first encounter each other at a party early on in the film, and after years of being loose acquaintances, finally engage in what fully appears to be a loving relationship built on mutual respect. In the second half, they’re often shown cohabiting an apartment and talking about their feelings, which gives Åkerlund the chance to slip Ferreira the boilerplate “follow your dreams”-type speech uttered by every one-dimensional supporting female role in every band biopic ever.
This all culminates with the scene directly before Euronymous’ murder, in which he’s shown in a collared shirt, with a plant in his apartment (a callback to an earlier scene in which he chucks a houseplant that his parents gave him into a garbage can), listening to something other than metal (Tangerine Dream), and getting his hair cut short. This, according to the Metal Hammer interview, is all the product of Åkerlund getting an exclusive glimpse of the police photo of Euronymous’ corpse, learning that he had cut his hair the night before the murder, and allowing assumptions about that clean-cut look to “change the whole arc” of the movie.
Here’s the real story, as told in the book: in the months leading up to his murder, the 25-year-old Euronymous was living with a 16-year-old girl named Ilsa Raluce Anghel. Hair length notwithstanding, our tragic figure becomes a lot less sympathetic when shown to be just as despicable in his treatment of women as Varg, who’s portrayed in the film as a sex-addicted misogynist. Yes, Euronymous looks like an angel when compared to Varg, but so does 99.9% of the world’s population.
Åkerlund’s version of events show Varg as an approval-seeking kid who becomes consumed by hateful ideas that are merely window dressing for his peers. Faust’s response to every piece of fallout from the murder he committed is a blank stare, as if he hadn’t contemplated its underpinnings or consequences. This upholds a pervasive, dangerous trope in our collective portrayal of white male criminals. In a 2017 essay for Teen Vogue, writer Sandra Song explained this as it relates to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer:
White male terrorists are typically assigned descriptors such as “disturbed” or “lone wolf”; their actions are almost always rationalized or discounted as a freakish outlier, despite the fact that statistics point toward mass murderers in America being predominantly white men.
Despite the fact that Varg’s self-appointed pseudonym (his given name is Kristian) translates to “wolf,” he clearly had a pack of friends around him during the initial formation of his beliefs, and all of them are basically washed of their sins by Åkerlund. Everybody who’s not a card-carrying Nazi or NSBM (national socialist black metal) fan pretty much agrees that Varg is a reprehensible human being, but Åkerlund’s not the only one who’s forgiven Varg’s peers. Since Faust was released from prison in 2003, he’s collaborated with ostensibly non-fascist bands like Ulver and Sigh, and was even welcomed back into Emperor’s fold for a 2014 reunion tour.
Beyond inaccuracies and free passes issued to murderers, let’s consider the cultural moment at which Lords Of Chaos is arriving. Documentaries, podcasts, and biopics about serial killers are basically a cottage industry to themselves, which depending on your beliefs and interests, is an issue unto itself. Zoom out further. What about Brett Kavanaugh? Doesn’t Åkerlund’s choice to depict “young boys” rather than “monsters and demons” sound like the right-wing defense of Kavanaugh’s sexual assaults? How about the “MAGA teen” who was recently videotaped mocking a Native American protester and then defended as “just a kid” by conservative pundits?
Allowing for a redemptive ending to Euronymous’ arc might give Lords Of Chaos a less ambiguous “moral of the story” moment than that of a more critical retelling of Mayhem’s grisly tale. But in handling the nascent NSBM ideology that’s since spread into a hateful, music-driven subculture with kid gloves — at best, having a bemused reporter remark to Varg, “So you believe in paganism, you’re a satanist, and you’re a Nazi? That’s a pretty broad belief system” — it normalizes a “boys will be boys” mentality in our culture. It also loses out on an opportunity for an unflinching examination of a horrible, but important part of metal history. Åkerlund straight-up refuses to reckon with the political beliefs that have come to define Varg, and were espoused by him and Euronymous — who allegedly once claimed that,” [A]lmost ALL Norwegian bands are more less Nazis” — as young adults. “I have a hard time seeing that any of these kids were politically or religiously driven at all,” Åkerlund told Metal Hammer, “I don’t think Satanism or racism or paganism had anything to do with what they did. Maybe now there’s more of a developed reason for it, but for a 17-20-year-old kid, I don’t think that that was the main force.”
I don’t believe that Mayhem’s members (outside of Varg) were pure evil, as they aspired to be depicted, but their despicable actions and publicly stated beliefs deserve to be treated as such. Something Euronymous says to his friends after Varg burns his first church is also applicable to Åkerlund’s treatment of Mayhem: “He made us all look like fucking Boy Scouts.”
Lords Of Chaos is in theaters 2/8 and on-demand 2/22.