The origins of the Norwegian black metal scene have mythos behind them that sound almost unbelievable. But through the years, members of the scene have verified long-held rumors and morbid acts that musicians had been rumored of doing. One of the largest acts to have a horrifying devastating story behind them is the 1980s black metal band, Mayhem.
There is a lot to unpack when we look at the history of Mayhem and what led them to become one of the most prolific acts in the black metal scene. Many have tried to unpack it, retell it, to share what they know. Some are accurate, some not so much.
So, before we go any further, I want to give a brief summary of what makes Mayhem so infamous. In 1987, a young guitarist called Euronymous formed a black metal band called Mayhem, the first of the genre in their country of Norway. Focused on the counterculture, Euronymous creates an image that is based highly on shock value. The band uses headless animals as props on stage. They wear makeup to make them look like corpses. They insist on the importance of being a satanist to be a part of the scene. They essentially build the foundation for the black metal scene. And as they continue to become more renowned, the power- especially in the case of Euronymous- goes to their heads. They try to become more and more shocking; things get out of hand. Suicide. Church Burnings. Stabbings. Murders. And it all ends with Euronymous getting murdered by his own bandmate Varg in 1993.
There is definitely a lot of detail I left out, but you get the picture.
There are two main depictions that developed a lot of buzz with metal fans. First came a book. In 1998, Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind wrote an account of the early Norwegian black metal scene called Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground. The book focused on the string of church burnings and murders that occurred in the country around 1993, particularly focusing on Mayhem. Overall, it was met with mixed reviews with many people leaning negatively, feeling that the depiction of the scene was inaccurate. Varg Vikernes, a main focal point of the book who was a member of Mayhem at the time stated that the authors of Lords of Chaos had no "insight into or even good knowledge about the subjects discussed" and "don't understand one bit what Black Metal was about in 1991 and 1992" and that they "have managed to fill the heads of a generation of metal fans with lies" (Source).
This book spawned what we’re here to talk about today: the movie. Lords of Chaos is a 2018 horror-thriller/biopic film directed by Jonas Åkerlund and written by Lillie Rammal, Dennis Magnusson, and Åkerlund adapted from the 1998 book. The film is a historical fiction account of the early 1990s Norwegian black metal scene told from the perspective of Mayhem co-founder Euronymous.
Let’s start out by saying that prior to going into this movie, I knew nothing about Mayhem. And I think if you’re someone going in knowing little to nothing about the accurate history of the band, there’s going to be a lot you enjoy about this movie. I think not knowing what they got wrong made for a much better experience. It’s like watching a book-to-movie adaptation, except instead of a book it’s a real-life event. And there are some facts they don’t quite get right in this movie. And there were a lot of die-hard fans that were very angered by this. But let me say this. Very few biopics get it all right. At the end of the day, a movie is meant to entertain. So sometimes, details are changed or overdramatized to fit. But when it’s real people, having those wrong details can really hurt their memory if done poorly. So, I want to go into a little more detail about what I think Lords of Chaos (2018) did right, and what they did wrong (or perhaps could have done better).
I’m once again adding a caveat that I am not a die-hard Mayhem fan, so this is purely my opinion. I am going to be looking at this movie through the lens of entertainment with only a bit of accuracy, but I am not here to pick apart every little detail, to cross reference every change made. This is a dive into what this piece of media accomplished and what it failed to hit the mark on.
Making the Tagline, “Based on Truth and Lies.”
This is a detail I think some viewers might have missed. Right out the gate, the film opens with “Based on Truth...Lies...And what actually happened.” This is reminding us that what we see ahead is only an iteration of what transpired, not a direct recollection. Not only is this covering their bases a bit, but it’s also letting the audience know that some of this is fictionalized or comes from the accounts of others. People can lie, stretch the truth, and tell the story how they want it to be perceived. All of this can make for a chance of inaccuracies. Even the accounts of those who were there back then could have room for inaccuracy, especially if a lot of time has passed. So having this tagline as one big stipulation to the audience was a smart and respectable choice. Knowing this, audiences can go out and seek the facts themselves after the film is over. So even if elements aren’t accurate, having this tagline encourages people to go out and seek the truth themselves. The film piques the interest first, and then it’s up to the viewer to seek out more information if they choose to.
From the costumes to the set pieces to the music choices, this film sets the tone right away. You feel like you’re looking into that time with a magnifying glass. We’re there as they morph into the face of the scene. We see them at their high points on stage and their chaotic points as they reap destruction. There’s palpable tension between Varg and Euronymous throughout the film, amping up more and more as the story progresses until we reach the crescendo of the inevitable. We see the chaos build and build as the members attempt to one-up each other. This atmosphere made the film very fascinating to watch for the average person (that isn’t a fan) because it felt like you were getting a close look into a world you never would have known otherwise.
The director of Lords of Chaos saw to the smallest of details, even recreating real photos of Mayhem with the actors throughout the film. They may serve as only small Easter eggs for big fans, but they also serve as a reminder to general audiences that these were real people. This connection was a very good choice from a cinematic standpoint too. It was also a nice touch that they used a real photo of Euronymous and Dead at the very end of the film. That was a nice closer.
Bringing a New Audience to This Story
The way I see it, this movie wasn’t made for fans of the band, at least not fully. Its intention was to bring this story to the masses. When a story is taken through Hollywood, there are always changes to make it accessible to an American audience, and because of this, many people got to learn of this dark and twisted history. It also gave the masses who know nothing about metal, and definitely not black metal, a chance to see what that world was like in the 1990s. Before, this story was known throughout the metal scenes, but with the general public learning the story, it offers a different perspective on the entire thing. Fans of metal may see the true story differently than someone on the outside. And I think having those options gives people a chance to see the way events went down from a different perspective, without bias from knowing the people involved.
The Desire to Fit In
Throughout Lords of Chaos, there is an overwhelming sense of desperation in the air. Perhaps fans of the genre may take this as a bad thing, but I don’t feel that way. It reminds you just how young these guys were when all this chaos is happening (early 20s). These people wanted to become something big, something to be remembered so badly, that they were willing to do the most extreme things to get there. It was all about how to one-up themselves. What’s the craziest thing we can do? What will make us hated by the masses? Euronymous in the movie even once says, “We want people to think we’re f*cked in the head.”
They had an image they wanted to create, and the way the film calls out their desire to be a certain way, to be shown in a certain light is a reminder to the audience that while these people may have acted in these extreme ways, it was for an image. When they say stuff in the film like, “When people hear our music, we want them to commit suicide” do you they mean that? Maybe they actually wanted to praise Satan and enjoyed the presence of headless animals on stage, or maybe it was all just part of the image. The ambiguity that the film has makes it more fascinating. It makes you feel like you’re watching a bunch of kids as they try to find themselves. You’re also watching a bunch of kids, young and dumb, who are willing to take risks for the sake of status in their community, not caring much about consequences beyond what they want.
When confronted in the film about if satanism is just an image, they insist it isn’t. And in trying to prove that they divulge into chaos. So much of the story focuses on these members not wanting to be posers. Being a poser is the worst thing you could do in their eyes. There’s one character who even mentions going on tour is a form of selling out. They’re expected to be ex-communists, and touring goes against that. This is another part of their intense desire to fit in. Throughout the movie they basically spit out empty statements, trying too hard to fit a mold while simultaneously claiming they intentionally set out to fit none. Maybe this isn’t how Mayhem members actually felt, but adding this layer was a great way to remind us of their humanity and give audiences a chance to relate to that desire to fit in. It was very well done (even if it’s not fully accurate).
Making Metal a Joke
That opening monologue making jokes about the country was odd, and that’s just one of many odd moments of comedy in this movie. I know these moments were meant to be lighthearted to show this is just a regular guy outside of the persona he portrays, but I think it’s a strange choice. It’s almost mocking at times. There are also some lines of dialogue in this that feel cringey and it’s unclear if it was intentional or not. If it was meant to be comedic, moments like Varg repeating 666 when counting down a bomb just felt a bit too try-hard and unlike how the true members would have been like. Now, that is pure conjecture since I didn’t know the real people. But having this underlying comedy about the story felt like it was meant to make it more palpable to the masses, to be like, “yeah this is about black metal, but we know it’s silly and full of posers.” I do not think that was the right energy to bring to a film like this, even if it did make the genre feel more approachable to the masses. Given that the movie was also marketed as a horror movie, they could have gone all in with that and made the members more threatening. Instead, they came off as silly kids rebelling most of the time. Yes, it made them easier to relate to, but it also made it a little too lighthearted given the intense subject matter the story follows. I’m sure the people who created this scene didn’t see any of their acts as a joke.
Misplaced Innocence of Euronymous
Throughout the film, Euronymous is often the one inciting acts, spewing platitudes about what it means to be part of black metal, but when it comes down to doing some of them, he stalls, and he backs off. Other times, when someone beats him to it, he’s surprised, showing hesitancy. In the movie, he talks of burning churches, but he doesn’t burn one himself until Varg did it first, and even then, he needed Varg there to do it with him. He talked of killing Varg when he was angry with him, but the movie puts it off as something he wasn’t ever going to actually do, that it was all talk.
Given the fate of the real Eurnoymous, we can’t know for sure if the inner monologue the movie version uses is at all accurate to his inner thoughts. The movie takes a few too many liberties, especially in making it so that it seems like Euronymous is unsure if he really wants to participate in all the activities that are a part of the black metal image. There’s a sense of hesitancy in his character that given what we know of the real person, doesn’t seem accurate at all.
Yes, Varg did some terrible things canonically, but so did Euronymous, and this film shies away from those which I don’t think was a good move. In the film, Euronymous is hesitant to blow up the cathedral they want on their album cover while Varg is the one pushing for it and suggesting it. When in reality, Euronymous was completely on board to burn the cathedral. It was even partly his idea. It’s changes like this that make the character appear innocent in this portrayal when reality paints quite a different picture. Looking at the true stories of Mayhem, making it seem like Euronymous had any semblance of innocence when it came to these destructive acts is irresponsible.
Euronymous and Dead Being Friends
One of the most glaring differences between this fictional story and reality is the idea that Dead and Euronymous were good friends. They actually did not get along at all. It seems as if they tolerated each other for the sake of making music. The movie decided to have Euronymous mention that they were becoming good friends and later implied that he had nightmares about Dead’s suicide. I feel that this was another irresponsible choice. Given that both of these people aren’t here to set the record straight, romanticizing their relationship to be something it isn’t... feels off. It’s another example of Hollywood building a narrative to appeal to the “good” of the character, to perpetuate that innocence further. It feels a little offensive to the real members who saw how the two interacted and were there through it all. Especially knowing how Euronymous propped up Dead’s death as a way to force his own agenda. He took photos of the dead body and made skull necklaces for those he deemed "worthy" just to enhance his own reputation. Making them friends in the movie was an odd choice.
Making Varg a Groupie Type
Lords of Chaos decided to portray Varg in a way that’s vastly different than how he was in reality. As I’ve said already, it’s okay to make changes to fit a story in a fictionalized account if it enhances the story. In this case, I don’t feel it did. In the film, Varg is portrayed as a misguided kid that became a groupie and then fell out with his hero Euronymous. This simply isn’t true. In reality, Varg was part of the black metal scene way before he joined Mayhem. He didn’t need to infiltrate the scene because he was already a part of it. I think the film was attempting to humanize some of Varg’s thinking and show us a “relatable” beginning for someone entering the scene, but instead, it made him come off a pathetic dude desperate to fit in while simultaneously not “fitting in” to the image at all costs. I think portraying him like this wasn’t a good idea and doesn’t add much to the story except to make you dislike Varg before he ever commits the murder.
Setting Aside Culture
This might seem petty given that it was a Hollywood production, but could they have at least tried to make these characters seem Norwegian? They chose very American actors that only vaguely resembled the people they were based on. It’s set in Norway, yet the entire movie is in English, and that takes me out a bit. It was clearly done to make it more accessible to the masses, but in doing so, it makes you wonder how authentic they wanted this entire depiction to be when it seems to be catering to English-speaking audiences. There are plenty of great films out there with subtitles. At the very least, they could have gotten dialect coaches to speak with a proper accent. Or maybe that would have made things worse. Either way, I think it was the wrong choice to take a lot of the actual culture away from the story. Very seldom does it feel like it’s set there.
Looking at both sides of things, there may be a lot of odd choices made by the studio when creating this film, but it’s also clear that a lot of passion went into this project. Jonas Åkerlund was a part of the black metal scene in Sweden, so perhaps what comes off as inaccurate or offensive is actually what it was like. Maybe it was just full of self-conscious posers looking to make their mark on the world. Whatever is true, the bottom line is that Jonas Åkerlund never intended to make a completely accurate movie. Remember, the beginning says so. So, with that said, I do feel that the movie accomplishes what it’s set to do, which is to tell us a shocking and devastating story. Lords of Chaos shows us the dangers one faces when chasing an image, how before you know it, you can lose yourself and take things too far. When your whole image is about rage and destruction, it’s inevitable that it would bleed into your own life.
Lords of Chaos does some great things, and it does some questionable things. This can be said about most movies. But I’m of the opinion that they made a decent movie that incited enough interest in me to go find the true story and write up this post, so I’d say it’s done its job well.
What do you think of Lords of Chaos? Did you enjoy it, or did you hate it? It seems many Mayhem fans lean negative when it comes to this film, but are any of you reading fans that enjoyed it? Let me know all your thoughts in the comments, because I’d love to talk more about this intriguing but devastating story.
Thanks for reading!
Special thanks to the following sources that helped me put together this post, and my local library for having this movie available to check out!
Written by Kristen Petronio