Films don’t often leave me speechless but after the final credits rolled on “Lords of Chaos,” I was so stunned and shocked that I felt like kicking a baby and running to a back alley to throw up. The movie opens with a title card that states that it’s “based on truth and lies” and effectively tells the story of the birth of Norwegian Black Metal that was created by the notorious band Mayhem. It’s more of a horror movie than a biopic, and I still can’t accurately find the words to describe what this movie did to me emotionally and how it has forever traumatized my soul.
The film starts out in Oslo circa 1987 where we meet teenage musician Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. Euronymous (Rory Culkin). He plays lead guitar with his painted-face, black leather clad band Mayhem and, in a genius effort of self promotion, stages several shocking publicity stunts to make a name for himself. After the gruesome suicide of their disturbed lead vocalist known as Dead (Jack Kilmer), Euronymous seizes the opportunity to ratchet up the shock factor by invoking toxic mischief and injecting a mix of satanism, vandalism, and bloody mayhem to sell more records. He enlists a new front man in the form of Varg (Emory Cohen), a mousy loser who is easily impressionable and has such a strong desire to be worshiped that he actually begins to believe the sinister image the band is selling. A deadly rivalry soon erupts and, as Euronymous says in an effective voice-over at the start of the film, things “don’t end well” for him.
This true story (well, parts of it are true anyway: the film comes with a disclaimer that it is “based on truth and lies”) is pretty damn terrifying. It’s hard to sympathize or find any humor in the antics of these young men because for the most part, these are horribly depraved people. It’s easy to at first dismiss it as a case of “idiot kids will be kids,” but it’s not so harmless when they turn to destructive vandalism in the form of burning down historic churches or acts of animal cruelty that sadly expand into self-mutilation, suicide, and eventually murder.
Clearly this movie is hyper brutal, loaded with disturbing, savage violence that includes a graphic suicide and barbaric, crude stabbings that make you feel like you’re right there next to the men as an actual firsthand witness to these crimes and deaths. It’s also a bonafide red alert for animal lovers, as these guys kill and abuse animals with some very graphic scenes of the aftermath (the film never shows the actual act of killing or abuse, but there are several scenes that feature a dead cat in the background that is extremely upsetting and, quite frankly, unnecessary). An instance of suicide and a couple of stabbings are filmed in a way that’s so realistic that it becomes all the more horrifying and upsetting.
The potent performances add to the feeling of authenticity and are bone-chilling in their effectiveness. Culkin’s Euronymous is the most sympathetic of the bunch, a guy who likes to shoot his mouth off to gain street cred and say wild, insincere things that his minions (including the loyal Faust (Valter Skarsgård)) unfortunately take literally. He isn’t really a terrible person deep down but a man who’s all about selling an image of Satanic worship and intimidation. Cohen is absolutely terrifying as the most disturbed and straight up crazy member of the band, one who takes Euronymous’ words to heart. It starts with a series of vandalism and arson that leads to some unspeakable acts of violence in an alpha-male power struggle and deadly pissing contest.
The film is effectively directed (by Jonas Åkerlund), shot and edited with an underlying sense of immense dread and quiet suspense that is like a hammer to the heart (and stomach). It’s an astonishingly well made project with wildly interesting (if unabashedly gruesome) subject matter that’s unforgettable because it’s so disturbing.