Lords of Chaos (2019)

“Based on truth, lies, and what actually happened,” Lords of Chaos is a half-fictionalized profile of the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, joining the ranks of other aggressively subjective, post-modern biopics like GoodFellas; Love & Mercy; Elvis & Nixon; and I, Tonya. Directed by a former black metal musician (Swedish music video auteur Jonas Åkerlund, formerly of Bathory) and based on an eponymous book detailing the real-life events it depicts, Lords of Chaos should carry an air of authenticity to its true-crime recollection of Mayhem’s rise-to-power and spectacular downfall. Instead, it takes great liberties in its selective memory and revisionist history for the sake of making a larger point about the type of shithead metal nerds it’s lampooning, whether or not they resemble the real-life people whose names are attached. In particular, Lords of Chaos is a little too forgiving to Mayhem “mastermind” Euronymous, the POV protagonist played increasingly humanely by Rory Culkin. It’s also guilty of going light on the Nazi rhetoric vocalist Burzum infused into black metal’s core philosophy, a grotesquely fascist self-contradiction in a movement supposedly built by anti-establishment subversives. Personally speaking, though, historical accuracy has never been something that’s prevented me from enjoying a movie as long as it has something true or interesting to say, which is the idea at the heart of the subjective, post-modern biopic. In this case, that truth comes in the form of a darkly funny true-crime satire about how hardline shithead metal nerds are mostly just trust fund kids with loving parents & purposeless suburban angst. It zaps all the supposed Cool out of the church-burnings, murders, and animal cruelty of black metal lore to expose them as the edgelord posturing that they were. And as lightly as it treads on Euronymous’s own faults and the seriousness of the movement’s Nazism that Burzum helped foster, it’s very clear in condemning them for escalating that edgelord behavior by preaching hateful rhetoric for the sake of “fun” & self-promotion.

The genius of making a film about Mayhem in the first place, of course, is that the band’s “break-up” story involves a spectacularly violent murder that made worldwide headlines. On its surface, the film is a tragic true-crime dramedy about a Norwegian teen’s ascent from the suburbs to self-made heavy metal legend. In that regard, Lords of Chaos reads as a toothless, formulaic, immorally misguided canonization of an over-glorified troll – which is how most pro critics have assessed its merits. For me, Mayhem’s story itself is only a convenient, sensational platform the film exploits to stage its true intent: broad, brutally unforgiving satire of gatekeeping edgelord teens in the black metal scene & beyond. There isn’t much difference between the “dark, evil” trolls of this film and the brand-building influencers of Instagram today, especially considering how many of the online contingent’s stories end at horrific meltdowns like Fyre Fest, Japanese suicide forests, racist-slur controversies, and criminal indictments for fraud. They spout hateful, destructive rhetoric for the press it gets them as shock value peddlers to boost record sales, then are horrified to discover that their most dedicated fans actually take their word as unholy gospel. Satanism, Nazism, and advocation for murder are less their personal philosophy than they are an opportunity for angsty teens to piss off their loving, supportive parents. The black metal musicians of Lords of Chaos aren’t selling a new pop music subgenre so much as they’re selling a lifestyle brand. Their quest to define the difference between “true metalheads” & “posers” becomes increasingly, darkly hilarious as they’re all literally posing for pictures & press. The only zealot who takes the philosophy seriously (Burzum) ends up being the trigger for their tragic downfall, so they’re effectively destroyed by their own edgelord posturing & verbal bullshit. Lords of Chaos does for the 1990s black metal edgelord what the Tim Heidecker picture The Comedy did for the 2010s Brooklyn hipster: costuming itself as a fan & a participant only to tear the entire enterprise down from the inside.

It’s impossible to tell whether the affectation is sincere or satirical, but one of the more amusing impulses Lords of Chaos pursues is in disguising itself as the kind of hyperviolent horror media its subjects would watch for entertainment. Their headbanging parties are shot with the fish-eye lenses & low-fi camcorder immediacy of 90s skateboarding videos & MTV footage. The pummeling blastbeats of their performances are illustrated with quick-edit montages that flash jump-scare horror imagery like a strobelit haunted house. In their spare time, the fascist trolls of Lords of Chaos watch gory splatter comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which the film itself matches in the intense practical gore of its own murder scenes. However, unlike in a Dead Alive, the real-life murders are not at all cartoonish or fun to watch. The camera uncomfortably lingers on the brutal displays, recounting each ugly stab & slice in grotesque misery. Similarly, the heavy metal party footage is comically undercut by the godawful sex, cheery suburban homelives, and image-conscious corpse paint posing that define these cruel nerds’ day-to-day, pathetic personae. Even the supposed badassery of their penchant for burning churches is soured by the churches in question being centuries-old structures of fine art majesty, not just provincial boxes with a steeple attached. Aesthetically speaking, Lords of Chaos matches the philosophical con-artistry of its subjects; it’s dressed up like “terror incarnate,” but just below that surface is something miserably, pathetically uncool. Whether that was the film’s intent is irrelevant at this point, but my personal reading of it as a satire leans to that bait & switch as being purposeful & weaponized.

As much as I appreciated Lords of Chaos as a post-truth biopic & an edgelord satire, I’m not at all shocked to see that most pro reviews of the film have been tepid at best. Spending two hours with these miserable, hateful shitheads is a thoroughly unpleasant experience, even though they are consistently the butt of a righteous joke. Whether or not Åkerlund could’ve been tougher on specific characters who were even worse shitheads in real life, I greatly enjoyed watching him give all gatekeeping black metal edgelords everywhere a collective noogie. It’s the exact fate these lowly nerds deserve.

-Brandon Ledet

Deathgasm (2015)

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fourstar

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At the height of heavy metal’s popularity in the 1980s there was a ridiculous mini-trend of horror movie releases that capitalized on parents’ fears & teens’ transgressive love of the genre. Films like Trick or Treat (the one with Ozzy, not the 2007 anthology) & Shock ‘Em Dead answered paranoid questions like, “What if rock & roll groups are hiding Satanic messages in their records in order to subliminally corrupt our children & turn them into murderers?” with a resounding “Hell yes! That would be bitchin’.” The only problem with these films is that they had the distinct POV of an outsider looking in. They’re fun films, but they’re lacking a self-awareness about the world of metal, playing more off assumptions about the subculture than its actual, true-life nature.

2015’s New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm, on the other hand, openly displays the insider knowledge of a true metal nerd’s overactive imagination. Not only does it continue the Kiwi traditions of films like Peter Jackson’s classic splatter fest Dead Alive, but it uses that gore-soaked past to deepen & improve 80s heavy metal themed horror schlock like Shock ‘Em Dead. This is the kind of film where D&D jokes fit snugly among casual discussions about metal’s endless list of subgenres– sludge, grind, death, black, etc. Deathgasm holds an obvious reverence for metal as both an artform & a lifestyle, but it’s also more than willing to poke fun at the subculture’s peculiarities, like the incongruity of ultra macho types wearing corpse paint (make-up) & metal nerds’ tendency to pine after potential love interests  from afar rather than, you know, actually talking to them. It also has a metal head’s sense of gore-soaked humor, going way over the top in its cartoonish violence & brutality.

At the beginning of the film, metal mostly serves as a form of escapism for miserable teens with social anxiety. At school & in public the central crew of nerd protagonists are constantly bullied into feeling like shit, but metal transports them to a mythical world (imagine the abstract mountaintop album art from the genre’s typical record covers) where they’re powerful & adored. Metal’s transcendent source of power becomes more literal as the nerds pull together to form a band called DEATHGASM (“all capital letters because lower case is for pussies”), playing a formed of blackened thrash with song titles like “Intestinal Bungee Jump.” Through their idolization of a defunct band wickedly named Haxan Sword they discover an ancient scroll of sheet music for a doom metal song that magically summons The King of Demons (a supernatural force bent on world domination) when played on a guitar. Instead of accepting the resulting gore-drenched apocalypse that ensues, DEATHGASM fights back, destroying The King of Demon’s loyal army of . . . demons with everything at their disposal: axes, chainsaws, drills, car engines and, of course, sex toys.

On the surface, Deathgasm has a lot more in common with the chaotic 1980s horror franchise Demons than it does with zombie fare like Dead Alive. It’s just that the films’ eye-gouging, throat-slitting, head-removing, blood-puking mayhem is played almost entirely for grossout humor instead of the discomforting terror inherent to films like Demons. This is especially apparent in the gore’s juxtaposition with rickroll gags & the goofy image of kids in corpse paint enjoying an ice cream cone. The horror comedy of Deathgasm is far from unique, though. What truly makes the film stand out is its intimate understanding of metal as a subculture. It’s easily the most knowledgeable movie in that respect that I’ve seen since the under-appreciated Tenacious D road trip comedy Pick of Destiny. I mean that as the highest of compliments. The difference there is that Pick of Destiny (besides being relatively violence free) got a lot of the attitude right, but didn’t have bands with names like Skull Fist, Axeslasher, and Beastwars on the soundtrack. Deathgasm not only looks & acts the part; it also sounds it, which is a rare treat. \m/

-Brandon Ledet