I’ve always felt that the black metal scene of the early 1990’s is hard to explain. The music that emerged from it is pretty much timeless, but in order to enjoy it, you need to either embrace or get past a lot of things. And by things, that word seems pretty light. Those things are murder and arson just for a start.
Based on the book Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, this Jonas Akerlund directed film falls prey to some of the issues that book has. Namely, who can know exactly what was going on in the scene unless they were there? Varg Vikernes — who recorded as Burzum and appears as one of the main characters in both the book and movie — has been a major critic. Vikernes states that the authors of the book had no insight or knowledge of what Black Metal was and they still filled the heads of a generation of metal fans with lies.
He hasn’t gone light on this film either. In a series of YouTube videos, he’s denied the filmmakers the rights to his music. He wasn’t pleased at being presented as being power mad. He’s also claimed that the movie is made up and plain wrong. Then again, this is the guy who murdered the other main character in this movie. So, like I said, black metal has a lot to get past if you’re going to go any deeper.
The film begins when Euronymous (Rory Culkin, Signs) forms Mayhem with Necrobutcher, Manheim and Maniac, but soon the last two members leave and are replaced by drummer Hellhammer (Anthony De La Torre, who played young Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and Dead, a singer who was once killed for several seconds by bullies in grade school. As a result, he has become defined by death, sending his vocal audition to the band along with a crucified mouse.
Mayhem soon becomes big within the metal scene, playing shows where Dead cuts himself and throws pig heads at audience members. As Metalion — a journalist who created the Slayer Mag that would document the scene (you can grab the collected issues from Bazillion Points) — films a show, the band meets a fan named Varg Vikernes, who is initially made fun of by the band.
Meanwhile, Dead decides to slice up his body and use Euronymous’ shotgun to commit suicide. Instead of calling the police right away, he takes photos of the body and takes pieces of Dead’s skull fragments to make necklaces. This causes Hellhammer to leave the band.
Euronymous then opens a record shop called Helvete that becomes the social center of the scene, drawing people like Varg, Darkthrone’s Fenriz and Emperor’s Faust (Valter Skarsgard) into becoming the Black Circle. Euronymous’ ego is threatened by Varg’s growing popularity — particularly amongst women — and willingness to live up to the anti-Christian rants and do things for real.
It becomes a battle of who is in control of the Black Circle. While Euronymous can lay claim to creating true Norweigan black metal, Varg has been the one willing to actually burn down churches and incite others like Faust to commit murder. While all this is going on, a new version of Mayhem that features Euronymous, Varg, Blackthorn and Attila record “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.”
Helvete is soon shut down by the police and Varg is arrested as the prime suspect of the church burnings after he does an interview with a newspaper claiming he committed every crime. That said, Euronymous does the same in a Kerrang! article. Varg is arrested but soon released for lack of evidence. And after an argument over who was in charge of the scene and what true black metal means, the two men reach the point of no return. To Euronymous, everything he said was just promotion. To Varg, selling records is meaningless next to his cause and his former mentor is now seen as fake.
That’s when Euronymous starts telling stories about how he’s going to kill Varg and make a snuff movie out of it. To him, this was all probably just talk. To Varg, these threats are real. So on the morning of August 10, he goes to Euronymous’ apartment and kills him. The knife stabbing extends on and on, probably like it did in real life. Varg would go on to serve the maximum sentence of 21 years in jail, which he served, despite escaping once.
So what did other people from the scene think? Mayhem’s Attila spoke for the current band members, saying that their position regarding the film and its creators is a “big fuck you.” He also pointed out that the movie only focused on Mayhem during the 1990s, not the whole black metal scene. That said, he did allow some of Tormentor’s songs to be used in the film and his role is played by his son, Arion Csihar. He was also on set for the church burning scenes.
Mayhem’s founding bassist Necrobutcher said, “I will do everything I can to stop this film. Tell the Swedes and the Hollywood people to go fuck themselves.” That said, the director claims that he got the band’s support. Their actual music doesn’t appear in the film. Instead, the songs were re-recorded by Malparidos re-recorded their songs for the picture.
So how did I feel? I hated this movie from three minutes in. Its tone feels like it wants to be a comedic tour through the formation of Mayhem and the fun — such as it is — of the scene. Let’s keep in mind how strange it is to portray many of these events — like church burnings — as buddy buddy moments. I didn’t believe in anyone in the film, didn’t see them as these near-mythic people they are portraying. Maybe that was the intention, to show us that the true Black Circle was just a bunch of silly kids acting up. But it just feels false. And false is at the very heart of everything that black metal stood against, demanding truth and devotion to a cause, no matter how patently insane it could be. I’d compare it to gangster rap, another genre that demanded that artists live up to the lyrics they recorded.
There’s nothing here that answers why one of the most gorgeous places in existence could give root to one of the darkest sub-genres in music. I guess I shouldn’t expect that much from a movie. But with Akerlund having some knowledge of this scene — he was in Bathory, which predates this era — but this all rang as false as the black metal band in Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.
If this is your first exposure to this music, there’s no way you’re going to want to listen to it or enjoy it. Even the end, where Euronymous tells the audience to fuck off and proclaims that he invented true Norweigan black metal, feels fake. It sounds like words on a page, not something proudly proclaimed. For all the faults of this film, that’s the worst. And when its followed up by cartoony fun images of church burnings and devils, it’s just upsetting.
This could have been so much more. Instead, it’s worse than nothing.
For another POV, check out my friend Brian Krasman’s review of this movie. If you love metal, his site totally has you covered.