Friday, April 26, 2019


Screamplay (1985)
Dir. Rufus Butler Seder
Written by Rufus Butler Seder and Ed Greenberg
Starring Rufus Butler Seder, Eugene Seder, George Kuchar, Katy Bolger, George Cordeiro

SCREAMPLAY has two blatant red flags within its first 30 seconds: a Troma logo at the outset, and then --even more worrisome-- an actual executive producer credit for Lloyd Kaufman in the opening credits. So you can't even console yourself that Troma just distributed it; this is a certified, Lloyd-Kaufman approved Troma production, of which there are, what, maybe four decent ones? Out of thousands? Those are very long odds indeed.

But somehow SCREAMPLAY manages to beat the odds, and not just end up watchable (which was certainly the very most optimistic thing I could imagine for it) but actively good. I want you to pause for a moment, and consider just how fucking unlikely that was. I cold-watch upwards of 50 or 60 horror movies a year, and often go for YEARS without finding one which could actively be called good. Entertaining? Sure. Amusingly incompetent? Often. Crappy but eccentric enough to be interesting? Occasionally. But genuinely good? And with a Troma logo upfront? Absolutely unheard of. It's so unlikely that I spent nearly the first hour of the movie thinking there must be something wrong with me, because there was no possible way this was as good as it seemed. But here I am, more or less sober, with several days to think it over. And I can tell you with confidence: Yeah, I think SCREAMPLAY is the real deal.

If I have not taken leave of my senses and it really is fucking rad as hell, it is entirely due to one man: Director / co-screenwriter / star actor / editor / visual effects / matte painter / sound editor Rufus Butler Seder, a mysterious one-and-done first-and-only-timer in every single one of those roles.* If the movie is at all autobiographical, it’s certainly possible that such a laborious one-man production may have broken him down and made the prospect of a follow-up seem pretty powerfully unappealing. But I’m more inclined to believe his retirement from cinema was more in kind with that of the great Russian director Elem Klimov, who made the masterpiece COME AND SEE and then simply declared he was done with the medium: "I've lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done," he said in 2000. OK, OK, SCREAMPLAY is probably not as a good a film as COME AND SEE. But what it has in common with Klimov is a distinct vision. They may be operating on different artistic levels and to different ends, but both movies have a very specific, unique tableau they wish to conjure. There’s nothing loose or haphazard about SCREAMPLAY; every element has been carefully curated to a specific end.

That end is something genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before: A black comedy about the creative process, set in some kind of vague 1950s Hollywood, as filtered through German Expressionism. I’ve read enough reviews offering unwieldy lists of ingredients in an effort to describe it (“BARTON FINK meets SUNSET BOULEVARD in an ERASERHEAD world!”) to know better than to try that route myself; suffice to say, it involves screenwriter Edgar Allan (Seder himself, sporting a character name which just serves to further complicate the film’s taxonomy) arriving fresh in Hollywood with the intent of writing the great American screenplay (screamplay?). Recruited fresh off the bus by a down-on-his-luck agent (Eugene Seder, presumably a relative), he quickly finds himself stuck in a run-down apartment complex managed by the brutish Martin (underground film director and video artist George Kuchar!) and peopled by a menagerie of desperate Hollywood stock types, from the naive aspiring actress (Katy Bolger, only one other credit**) to the faded Hollywood diva (M. Lynda Robinson, “Newspaper Purchaser #1” in WITH HONORS) to the burned out ex-rocker (Bob White, SCREAMPLAY). As they each in turn visit their particular brand of toxic dysfunction on him, he pours his fury into murderous revenge fantasies in his screenplay, explaining that to make great art, he has to confront the darkness within himself. But this confrontation gets a little darker than he bargained for when the tenants start dying in exactly the way his screenplay describes.

That scenario makes for a perfectly adequate mystery-thriller setup, with just a touch of introspection about the dark side of making art (there are some notable similarities with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF, published a few years later). In its basic form, it’s boilerplate enough to barely register, much less justify the kind of praise I’m about to throw at it. But like most great genre art, the premise is just a skeleton upon which to hang an aesthetic, which is the movie’s real interest. And what an aesthetic we have here! For reasons known only to its creator, SCREAMPLAY’s simple, Agatha Christie slasher plot has been meticulously visualized as a lost German Expressionist film from the 1920s. This is hardly the first horror film to draw on Expressionism as an aesthetic, but it’s not merely “influenced” or “informed” by the style of this era. It’s painstakingly recreated in every detail, from the broad, theatrical performances (Seder himself sets the tone perfectly, with his intense oscillation from cheerful earnestness to wild fury), to the wavering lighting, to the chaotically stylized sets, to the surreal, hallucinogenic compositing, to the fractured, freudian psychology. Isolate basically any frame and you could convince me I was actually looking at a lost film from the 20s.

...Except also, not quite. Because while the film is absolutely fastidious about recreating the look and feel of that era, it’s by no means some kind of wholesale pastiche. It’s also casually anachronistic in a million little ways, not the least of which being that it’s not a silent film. Characters speak aloud, and there’s sound effects and music and everything, no intertitles whatsoever. That alone should be enough to completely shatter the illusion, and yet somehow it doesn’t at all. The movie is so powerfully evocative of its chosen milieu that despite the spoken dialogue, mild explicit violence and sex (it is a Lloyd Kaufman production, after all!), and visual signifiers placing it somewhere in the vague 50’s or 60’s (James Dean-esque biker hunks, burned-out rockers, killer transvestites on roller skates [it is a Lloyd Kaufman production, after all!]) never for one moment does it seem phony or distracting. It doesn’t feel like an impossible mish-mash of incompatible culture detritus, however much it seems like it should; it just feels like a movie made in some bizarre alternate reality where cinematic style never evolved beyond the mid-20s. Sure, you couldn’t hear the voices in those old movies, but you get the feeling that this is what they would have sounded like. And sure, they didn't have scores, but the jazzy, off-kilter music of George Cordeiro and Basil J. Bova (both also actors in the movie) is an exactly perfect fit for the demented tone. It feels right. And I mean exactly right. Unlike the rash of 80’s pastiches which have recently proliferated, this doesn’t feel in the least bit nostalgic or satirical; it simply feels like the only correct way to tell this particular story. It’s doesn’t parrot an archaic aesthetic, it simply embodies it.***

The story itself is far less groundbreaking than the spectacular look of the film, but it’s sturdily constructed and finely-tuned enough to leave an impression, nonetheless. Like the curious George Romero trilogy of DARK HALF, MONKEY SHINES and BRUISER, it places the creator of dark, antisocial art under the spotlight and forces him to ponder why he's drawn to such art, and what it's for. And it is, I think, a little more honest and nuanced than many of its peers which address the same basic moral conundrum. Cheerful, optimistic Edgar arrives in LA with a childlike excitement about the great art he’s going to create.**** But as he gets shit on and abused more and more, he pours his incipient bitterness into the script, claiming he’s doing it to get audiences to “face a part of yourself that you’re unwilling to acknowledge.” Far from being disturbed by this, though, he sees it as a vital part of the creative process, arguing that channeling base instincts  --where human passion runs deepest and most fiercely-- is intrinsic to all great art. Experiencing monstrous feelings does not make us monsters; in fact, it makes us human. When his stoned neighbor claims he has the “hands of a killer,” he laughs “yes, to a degree they are!” (he is, after all, killing the characters in his script with his hands -- by typing them out of existence) but he goes on to declare, “but I’m not actually capable of killing anyone!”

That, of course, is open for debate, because as he begins to murderously fantasize about killing his neighbors, we’re mighty suspicious that he might actually be doing exactly what he’s supposedly writing about. But no, his “victims” are still alive and well when we check back on them immediately after he writes their death scenes. His “murders” really are just a means for him to channel his rage into his art… right? But “sins of the mind and sins of the body are as one!” someone tells him. And for a horror movie, SCREAMPLAY actually treats this idea pretty seriously, ending with an elegant but rather ingenious solution to the mystery that plays off its musings in a thoughtful, darkly funny way (right down to the elegantly perfect final line, with its sublime double meaning).

It’s not a perfect movie, of course; even at a perfectly reasonable 92 minutes, it might dawdle a little more than it needs to at the onset. And while the cast of mostly unknowns is astonishingly consistent and on-board with exactly the kind of intentionally stilted acting the movie obviously requires, there is a sleazy publicist character (Ed Callahan, only one other acting role, but 113 credits in the sound department, including on this film and a sampling of impressively high-profile Hollywood productions) who seems a little too contemporary and restrained to fit in with the broad, stylized and orphaned-from-time performances of the rest of the cast. But those are relatively minor concerns, mere momentary distractions from what is otherwise a stupendously assured and effective film, all the more impressive considering its unique vision was the product of a first-time director (and actor! And screenwriter! And editor! And matte painter! and…) on what was surely a budget that would barely cover the hairdressers on an AVENGERS movie. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks so: Lloyd Kaufman picked the film as one of five “Troma Unsung Classics” in his memoir, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger. It probably deserves better company than that, but maybe like its protagonist, it drew some sense of purpose from its disreputable compatriots. Troma might not be any better at cultivating great art than Hollywood is, but at least real recognize real. Credit where it's due: Kaufman saw something special here, and for once in my life I can't argue with him. As a lover of cinema, I can't help but find it a great tragedy that Rufus Butler Seder never made another movie, but then again, this is a hell of a high point to retire on.

PS: Also, I didn’t know where else to put this in the review, but there’s a stuntman in here whose name is “Flip Johnson,” and I’m not making that up. I just thought you should know.

* Who later in life achieved some level of fame as the creator of a process called “scanimation,” a type of “barrier grid animation and stereography” which allows still images to appear to move, and he has successfully parlayed into a career as a best-selling book author/illustrator and mural creator. 

** A video short directed by her SCREAMPLAY co-star George Kuchar two years later!

            *** A good comparison point might be Ti West’s masterful HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, which also adopts a heavily stylized, somewhat outdated aesthetic because it is intrinsically the most effective milieu in which to situate the particular story being told. Though pastiche movies have become commonplace since then, most seem to be more interested in evoking nostalgia than telling a story which cries out for the period trappings.

            **** In fact, Edgar’s relentlessly cheerful demeanor in the face of the many indignities he endures reminds me quite specifically of Johnny Depp’s immortal ED WOOD (which came out almost a decade later). This in turn causes me to note a surprising amount of other similarities: they’re both 1) Hollywood satires about a enthusiastic amateur trying to break into the biz, 2) shot in black and white, 3) set in the 1950s, 4) feature strong elements of German Expressionism (though ED WOOD’s are admittedly more inspired by the Universal Horror films) 5) share a specific love of the Universal Horror cycle of the 1930s (the first thing Edgar Allan does in Hollywood is visit the walk-of-fame stars of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and, yes, Bela Lugosi! But he also treats himself to a triple-showing of NOSFERATU, THE GOLEM, and CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) and 6) concern their protagonist struggling with hidden urges which they perceive to be harmless but are a source of suspicion for those around them. Can I prove that Tim Burton watched SCREAMPLAY and then ripped it off and made his best movie? No, I can’t prove that. But remember that time he stole Kevin Smith’s idea for the dumbest possible ending to PLANET OF THE APES? I’m just sayin’ there’s precedent, here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Psychos In Love

Psychos In Love (1987)
Dir. and written by Gorman Bechard
Starring Carmine Capobianco, Debi Thibeault, Frank Stewart

PSYCHOS IN LOVE begins unpromisingly, with some unappealing lighting, awkward blocking, disorienting editing, and hectoring repetition, all of which leads to a shot-for-shot parody of the PYSCHO shower scene which is so played out by this point that I almost turned the movie off then and there. But then, just as things start to look hopeless, something unexpected happens: the same sequence of images and words play through again, only this time with a different conclusion, subverting the established expectations. And suddenly it becomes clear that all the labored repetition was put in place so it could be intentionally disrupted. How bout that, huh? This isn’t just random slapdash incompetence. I mean, it's that too, but despite how crude it looks, someone purposefully made specific choices here in order to pursue a specific goal.

This will more or less describe the entire movie. It's crude, and sometimes out-and-out amateurish in its construction, but it has something that very, very few zero-budget independent "American Regional Horror" films (or, hell, these day even --and maybe especially-- a big-budget films!) can claim to possess: a real sense of purpose. It's trying to do something unique and specific, and it's making artistic decisions to try and accomplish that goal. That may not sound like much, but it makes all the difference in the world between a hollow genre exercise and something vastly more interesting.

This unusual focus is unexpected enough on its own, but what makes it even more shocking is that the particular purpose being pursued here is actually an interesting one (if more so in the execution than the conceit). The premise is simple: a schlubby bartender (Carmine Capobianco, GALACTIC GIGOLO) and a vivacious manicurist (Debi Thibeault, CEMETERY HIGH) bond over their mutual pathological hatred of grapes... oh, and also the fact that they're both prolific serial killers. This seems like an easy setup for an exploration of a poisonous relationship that blooms into some nihilistic sadism, a la THE HONEYMOON KILLERS or NATURAL BORN KILLERS. But PSYCHOS IN LOVE goes in a completely unexpected direction: their shared predilection towards homicide actually makes them a really compatible pair, and the movie is much more interested in exploring the complications of a healthy, mutually honest relationship than a toxic one.

I mean, don't get me wrong, there's a ton of murder in here, all of it played as broad --and sometimes out-and-out slapstick-- black comedy. But the film has a refreshing sweetness and sincerity to it that puts the characters and their relationship first. And to its credit, it never creates the expected, easy conflict about whether or not they'll stay together. They love each other and there's never any talk about breaking up, but that doesn't mean their relationship isn't complicated by jealousy, boredom, fears of loss of individuality, the tedious routine that comes with constantly disposing of hacked-up corpses, and so on. It's a rare story about relationships which recognizes that they are defined not by dramatic lows and passionate highs, but in negotiating the small foibles of life with honesty and empathy, and a commitment to both the relationship as a whole and to the partners as individuals. In fact, despite all the blood and nudity, its primary artistic inspiration seems to be more ANNIE HALL than PSYCHO, right down to its characters directly addressing the camera and occasionally indulging in some surreal meta comedy about their awareness that they're in a movie.*

Of course, resisting the easy will-they-won’t-they drama also forces the movie into something of a dilemma: it needs some sort of conflict in order to create a narrative, but doesn’t have the heart to push the lovebirds apart. It partially compensates with a subplot about another serial killer in the same town, this one a cannibal plumber (Frank Stewart, GALACTIC GIGOLO). He too is killing victims, and it’s clear that at some point he’s going to encounter our protagonists and complicate their lives in some way, in what could generously be called a climax. But really, most of the movie isn’t about that, and consequently the movie is less a “story” than it is a series of vignettes that offer little glimpses into the evolution of the central relationship, as excitement and passion give way to ennui and routine and force the two lovebirds to reevaluate who they are and what kind of life they want. It’s not exactly psychologically deep stuff --most of the movie is composed of goofy jokes and comic murder scenes-- but there’s an unmistakable sincerity and thoughtfulness that makes you take the characters seriously, even in some blatantly cartoonish scenarios.

I don't want to overpraise it -- it IS crudely constructed, repetitive, indifferently paced, and suffuse with the sort of awkward editing and blocking that you might expect in something this cheap and primitive (none of which is helped by its inescapable lack of stakes or narrative urgency). But both leads are genuinely charming, and the movie's approach is so unique and surprisingly insightful that it's hard to hold the occasionally amateurish construction against it. And as ungainly as it can get, there’s a surprising and undeniable wit that underlies it all. Plenty of Z-grade horror movies offer campy chuckles, but PSYCHOS IN LOVE has some real earned laughs, some of them pretty lowbrow (there's a sequence about an unkillable stripper that's as unapologetically sophomoric as it is hilarious) but others rather more sophisticated (one scene finds a potential victim dumping her entire depressing life story on her would-be killer, bumming him out so much that the tables unexpectedly turn). Considering I’m usually overjoyed to find a film this obscure which can even offer a handful of eccentric moments, finding one which genuinely succeeds on its own merits feels nothing short of miraculous. A big thank you to Vinegar Syndrome for rescuing this hidden gem from an unwarranted obscurity.

* In fact, I notice that late in the movie when the characters get a VCR and rent dozens of horror movies, ANNIE HALL is the only box remaining in the “Sci-Fi/Horror” section of the video store. It’s also funny that while the movie makes a big joke about all the franchise sequels, it’s only 1987 so there are only six Jason movies!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lords Of Chaos

Lords of Chaos (2019)
Dir Jonas Åkerlund
Written by Dennis Magnusson, Jonas Åkerlund
Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Sky Ferreira, Jack Kilmer

LORDS OF CHAOS is ostensibly a musical biopic centering on the rise and fall of "True Norwegian Black Metal" band Mayhem (they always say the whole phrase, every time), who rose from humble beginnings to become kings of a tiny subculture of disaffected, angry youths, only to then become victims of that same community's downward spiral into hatred and violence. And it IS that story, though a telling of it which is almost palpably disinterested in the music which theoretically sits at its center. But it also works as a broad, mildly satirical examination of how angry young men ruin the things they ostensibly love. Which is to say, how pathetic posers escalate into dangerous zealots. With a few details swapped, this could be the story of everything from ISIS recruits to people sending rape threats over STAR WARS sequels. It's not an elegant beast, but it does effectively and mercilessly articulate that particular tale of woe, which sadly feels especially relevant right now.

The plot is a fairly straightforward rise-and-fall template. We begin with the creation of the band Mayhem, by guitarist Øystein Aarseth (Rory Culkin, SIGNS) --better known (to the kind of people who would watch this movie, anyway) by his metal name, Euronymous-- an auspicious moment in metal history made slightly less so by the fact that it occurs in his middle-class parents’ basement. Mayhem eventually recruits troubled Swedish singer “Dead” (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, THE NICE GUYS) and become the center of a burgeoning Norwegian black metal scene, until “Dead” commits suicide. Euronymous, upon finding his body, sees a straight shot to the kind of infamy which will boost his band’s capital, and photographs the corpse for the cover of their debut album. The strategy works, and Euronymous sets himself up as the leader of a devoted local scene called “The Black Circle,” opening his own record shop (with his parents’ money) to use as a lair. But things begin to fall apart after awkward outcast Varg (Emory Cohen, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES) shows up on the scene and starts taking Euronymous’ shock-bait philosophy seriously, escalating the group to arson and murder.

            In its details, it is a fairly simple thing. It’s based on, as the opening intertitles tell us, “the truth, and lies, and what really happened.” I’m not really sure what that means, but it imparts a good sense almost immediately of the kind of snarky tone the movie wants to cultivate. More specifically, it’s based on the nonfiction book of the same title, a fact which seems more relevant, but perhaps less important. It is based on a true story (and seems quite faithful to the basic facts of that story) but objective journalistic accuracy is less important here than tone. The movie is not intended as a piece of dispassionate reportage; it clearly sets out with an explicit goal to demythologize the larger-than-life music scene it’s depicting. And “demythologizing” means something rather specific in this case. Most musical biopics --if they bother at all-- try to do that with a “warts and all” approach, wherein we see the musical icon at their worst, as well as their best. But in this case that wouldn’t work, because the denizens of the particular subculture we encounter here were trying their damndest to look “evil,” and would be most proud of their worst moments. So instead, LORDS OF CHAOS adopts a different strategy. It offers the familiar highs and lows, sure, but it lingers on the mundane in a way that reveals the most shameful truth imaginable for a bunch of hardcore satanist metal junkies: they were all a bunch of dorks.

            On the surface, the plot sounds pretty intense, and from time to time it is; there’s a bluntness to the occasional violence which is genuinely shocking, and the film effectively conveys the sense of panic that descends upon Euronymous as Varg starts to drag his little community into violent madness. But the movie finds its real reason for being in the downtime between the tragedies: Euronymous trying to look scary for a photo sessions after having his little sister help him dye his hair, Varg stumbling through a poorly-thought-through interview with an unimpressed journalist, the “black circle” pathetically trying to look tough and one-up each, convincing their parents to pay for it all. It doesn’t make fun of them, exactly; it just offers a brutally honest portrait, and trusts that they’ll make fools of themselves without the film needing to do anything at all. Which they eagerly and enthusiastically do. It has not an ounce of respect for them, though it does have an understated but crucial sliver of affection for them, in all their moronic enthusiasm. They may be dumb, but they are just kids, after all, and their follies are the follies of misspent youth… until they aren’t anymore.

Director Jonas Åkerlund is best known as a music video director (he's worked with everyone from Madonna to Rammstein), and there's a little bit of that frantic style everyone used to associate with music videos in here, probably not to the movie's benefit. There are some semi-cheesy stylistic affectations, ranging from the film's smirking voiceover narration to some corny avid-fart horror imagery. But it does get the most important thing right: it truly understands these heavy metal dorks, fundamentally gets who they are, what they want. Åkerlund himself is a Swedish-born former heavy metal drummer (for extreme metal band Bathory) who spent his formative years in the same circles and clearly knows the culture inside and out in a way no outsider would be able to. The movie, by extension, absolutely understands why the kids were attracted to something like this, intuitively grasps what's cool about metal, and, hell, to a certain extent embodies actually those things itself. The idea that anyone except total squares wouldn’t think corpse paint and blast beats are inherently awesome doesn’t even cross its mind; no character needs to explain aloud that this music is blowing their mind, because that’s assumed. It has not the slightest shame in trafficking in metal iconography and horror movie tropes, sees no irony at all in acknowledging that while church burning is clearly a bad thing, it is an awesome and totally metal visual.

I mean, I'm against arson and everything, but come on.

 But in understanding that, it is also relentlessly unromantic about how dumb and lame these dorks were, even at their very darkest moments. The movie is, at its very core, an exploration of the contrast between the epic fantasy of extreme art and the banality of real life. It suggests that Euronymous’ original sin was to blur the line between those two, ushering in a dissociative fiction which gradually metastasized into something deadly. But never into something cool. There’s nothing lamer than someone who just misses the point, who doesn’t get it, no matter how far they push. Varg, as dangerous and vicious as he will reveal himself to be, is the object of scorn more often than fear; he’s a pathetic figure, a desperate wannabe who wanted to be so badly that he actually became the thing that everyone else was smart enough to know was a irresponsible fantasy, not an actual way of life. Even when he’s committing a brutal murder, we’re invited to laugh at his self-conscious tough guy posturing and his laughable ineptitude. And it’s an ugly, slow murder; Åkerlund doesn’t skimp over the nastiness of what Varg is doing, it just denies him the only thing he actually cares about: his image as a badass. He strips him of his fantasy of himself as a cold-blooded warrior, and reveals the bumbling, needy child lashing out that he really is. He may think he’s Hannibal Lecter, but the movie makes it clear he’s just an angry Napoleon Dynamite.

This feels like an especially vital strategy on today of all days. I’m writing this on March 15, 2019, a date that will probably not mean much to anyone reading this in the future, but which happens to have dawned with the headline “49 killed in terrorist attack at mosques in New Zealand.” And that date probably won’t mean anything to you in the future because by then we’ll have seen a dozen more headlines just like it. Angry young men becoming murderous young men is a sickeningly pervasive part of life these days, and that adds an awful urgency to a story about people who, in a happier world, we wouldn’t need to think much about. If these Mayhem assholes were just an isolated aberration, it wouldn’t feel so necessary to try to dig into them. But this snapshot of the groping death spiral of a subculture back in the 90’s feels like the first modern stirring of the now-tragically-common impulse for niche subcultures to “radicalize” --I don’t think we even had that word back then-- and end up visiting their murderous fantasies on the real world. Varg’s chosen name even means “Lone wolf,” the name we have taken to calling these sorts of killers. And now is as good a time as any to say it: though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from watching the movie, Varg was, and remains --you guessed it-- a hardcore white nationalist, and today is probably better known for that than for his terrible music. Mayhem may not have been patient zero for this kind of ideology (and as far as I can tell the rest of the band didn’t share his politics), but they’re certainly emblematic of a rising tide of forces which have spent the last 30 years twisting typical obnoxious teenage rebellion into murderous hate. And that tide is showing no signs of ebbing.

We’ve got to talk about these guys, we can’t afford not to. But the danger in doing that is that you end up giving them exactly what they want -- attention, a platform, an audience. For a normal person, being portrayed as a dangerous, vicious psychopath would be an insult, but for these fuck-os, it feeds into their narcissism and their desperate need to be, if not respected, at least feared. At least taken seriously.

That’s the brilliance of Åkerlund’s approach. If there’s one thing here that only a filmmaker with some real roots in the metal community would have known to do, it’s how he portrays these assholes in the one way which is absolutely guaranteed not to feed their ego. Åkerlund acknowledges the harm that scumbags like Varg are capable of. But he refuses to take them seriously. Because they’re not worth taking seriously. Their ideas are not worth debating, their art is shallow and juvenile, their philosophy is a joke. They don’t deserve to be psychologically probed, they deserve to be mocked. And the best way of doing that is to strip away their self-aggrandizing personas to reveal what bumbling, dull losers they are. Dangerous, sometimes, but only in the most banal, pathetic sort of way. They’d never object to being portrayed as evil, vicious scumbags, but they hate being portrayed as shallow, preening chumps (and just in case you had your doubts, the remaining band members regarded the film as a “big fuck you,” which it most certainly is. Varg himself* called it “character murder,” which is fucking rich coming from an actual murderer, and was especially incensed about the movie’s brilliant alpha dog move of casting a Jewish actor as him. Only a movie that really understood these guys would be able to get under their skin this badly, which is a noble enough goal to make it entirely worth making the movie even if it had no other artistic merit of any kind).  

Not everyone seemed to understand that approach: “Åkerlund likes the immediacy of an awful act….But there’s also an unmistakable tone of jokey disdain for hollow youth... Ultimately it all adds up to a hodgepodge of styles and attitudes with hardly any insight into what made this corrosive clique so magnetic to its adherents,” complained the LA Times’ Robert Abele. But that misses the whole point; it’s the hollowness and the strange, stupid naïveté of it all that explains the whole thing. The lack of insight is the insight, because there’s nothing especially interesting or well-thought-through about any of this. None of it was necessary, none of it was inevitable, it was just something dumb that happened when a bunch of dumbasses competing with each other got out of control because everyone involved was too self-interested and shallow to stop it. Remember: metalheads are the jocks of the musical world. Affording these guys the dignity of prying into their psyche would be an insult to their victims. They were just dumb, selfish young men, and, as will happen when such a group gets together, one thing led to another. Their motives were as shallow as their philosophy, and worthy of about the same cursory level of scrutiny.

And yet, we do need to stop this kind of tragedy in the future, and so the film invites us to wonder, who is responsible? Is Euronymous actually Donald Trump, a vain, cowardly poser whose phony tough-guy stance ends up inspiring guys like Varg --or the New Zealand shooter-- to go out and live their violent ethos for real? Or is he more like (one possible reading of) the central character in AMERICAN SNIPER, a fundamentally sensitive soul trapped in a brittle, macho ethos which he lacks the emotional tools to adequately challenge as a poisonous fantasy, and who ends up perpetuating that very ethos because it’s become too intrinsic a part of his identity for him to know how to do anything else? Perhaps overly generously, Åkerlund and (especially) Culkin seem to see Euronymous as the latter, and do their best to let us read his “evil” posturing as a symptom of his insecurity and inability to deal with the trauma of his friend’s suicide. Culkin called him “a bit of a sweetheart” and strongly implies with his performances that Euronymous’ violent rhetoric and nihilist front was a put-on, a harmless geek show that ended up getting away from him, at worst a somewhat irresponsible cover for a needy kid who doesn’t know how to appropriately express his feelings.

 But of course, that diagnosis (minus the “sweetheart”) could describe Varg just as easily, and the movie mercilessly tracks his descent from pathetic reject to cold-blooded killer. Euronymous may not have meant any harm, and he may have been a benign little weasel with just enough savvy to understand that shock tactics bring attention. But it’s kind of hard to let him off the hook when his actions had so many real-world consequences that he never took any responsibility for. One of those real-world consequences eventually affected him directly (making this a rare case of an instigator who also ended up a victim), but even this sympathetic portrayal seems to openly acknowledge that he shares a lot of the blame here. None of this would have happened without him. Hate-fueled killers feed off the claptrap of phony self-interested con men like Euronymous, from politicians to preachers to TV talking heads and internet agitators, amoral hustlers all, who see an easy mark in the the beta-male outcasts who transform their self-serving bullshit into true hate. They’re charlatans, not true believers, but you don’t get to duck the responsibility for your actions just because you’re a transparent fraud. It’s easier to have some sympathy for Euronymous, who, after all, was only a fucking kid, and even at the end doesn’t seem to quite understand what he’s unleashed. But still, he set this in motion, he kept it going, and he was perfectly happy to enjoy the benefits of notoriety even after the harm it was doing was perfectly clear.  

Which forces me to ask: am I part of the problem too? After all, you know what these assholes have in common? They look like me. They came from the same background I came from. They watch the same movies, dig the same music, run in the same circles. I was once a teenage asshole who thought he was edgy, too. I wasn’t a black metal guy myself, but is being into over-the-top provocative movies that much different from being into over-the-top provocative music? Am I, thinking I’m being a perfectly harmless little shithead, actually just as guilty as Euronymous in aggrandizing a culture and a fantasy which has disastrous real-world consequences? Are those guys a frustrating persistent bug in the system, or do we need to start worrying that they’re actually a feature?  

There was a time when I was a evangelical free-speech absolutist, and the answer to these questions was a simple one: no, you don’t have to feel responsible for whatever wrong idea some nutcase takes from your art, and no, you don’t need to apologize for the art you enjoy. Scorsese has no responsibility for John Hinckley, DIRTY HARRY doesn’t owe the world a good moral lesson, Venom (the extreme metal band, not the beloved Tom Hardy film) --referenced by both Euronymous and Varg-- isn’t to blame if a few demented fans don’t understand their whole Satanism schtick is an act, just a logical next stop in the footsteps of Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne. Art doesn't kill people; people kill people. And after all, before we start fretting about violent lyrics and swear words, let’s not forget that we already had a moral panic about heavy metal music, and we lived to regret it; in fact, in 1993, the Satanic Panic which heartlessly pathologized the genre and persecuted its dumb, harmless fans was still in full swing. The West Memphis Three were convicted the next year. Metalheads really are mostly sweethearts, and their lives are already hard enough due to their poor social skills and terrible taste in music (just kidding, metalheads. You know I love you). It's unfair and harmful to demonize them and treat them with suspicion just because they like bands with names like Darkthrone or Napalm Death. And besides, fantasy, including (and perhaps especially!) anti-social fantasy, is part of the human experience, and it’s something that we intrinsically demonize at our great peril.

That side was always easy for me to see. And I still see it, obviously, especially where the law is concerned. But there’s another side that didn’t come as easily (the side that, I think it’s worth saying, seldom comes easily to people who come from some degree of social and economic privilege): art, fantasy, and speech are slippery things, never as comfortably abstract and removed from reality as they sound. Art is important, fantasy is important, speech is important, precisely because they are not some benign aesthetic thing independent of the real world. They wouldn’t be worth fighting for if they were. These are powerful, vital tools that we use to shape our understanding of ourselves and the reality we inhabit, and consequently they have tremendous power to influence people and cultures in profoundly negative ways, both maliciously and through casual indifference. Art can hurt. Fantasy can kill. Speech can oppress. All freedom has a cost, and that cost is often paid by someone else, most likely someone who is already a target for one reason or another (it’s no coincidence that the first victim of violence here is a gay man; insecure assholes will always kick the suffering down, because it’s safer than directing their anger at someone who might actually deserve it). Once upon a time, maybe even as recently as 1993, an artist --or anyway, a white, male artist of modest economic privilege-- was typically asked only to look inwardly, to draw something from inside and release it out into the world. It’s an appealing perspective for an artist, affording endless personal freedom and demanding no accountability. But it’s a myopia we can ill-afford anymore. If we embraced it in ignorance once, we cannot claim to do so any longer. The act of creation alters the world, and no one wielding the power to do that has the right to shirk the responsibility that power imparts upon them.

 But of course, the power of art to shape reality is never a simple linear thing. Art that’s very bad for one person may be very good for someone else, and, anyway, however benign and prosocial you might try and make your art, there’s always gonna be some nut who takes the wrong idea from it. The point is not that art should only depict good morals, or that it needs to relate directly to reality at all. In fact, the point is not really about art at all. It’s about people. We’ve got to be aware of what we’re putting out into the world because we have a responsibility to our fellow humans, and a shared investment in helping to guide them --individually and as a culture-- to a better place. After much soul-searching, that’s the conclusion I came to. Not that Euronymous ruined everything because he wrote lyrics that inspired people to violence (the movie couldn’t be less interested in his music, and you can’t make out the lyrics in any case) but that he built a subculture which brought out the worst in people, used them for his own self-gratification. His original sin was not an interest in loud music and morbid subjects, it was using the death of his friend as a marketing stunt. And he didn’t even do that because he was a heartless psychopath, but because, ultimately, he was a “bit of a sweetheart,” but alas, one too cowardly and juvenile to deal with his feelings directly. That weakness, and the need for a cartoonishly exaggerated show of strength to cover it over, was the poison that curdled a subculture that could have, under different circumstances, really helped people.

After all, this is ultimately about outcasts who are desperately in need of a home. Abele wondered why the movie doesn't explore "what made this corrosive clique so magnetic to its adherents." But isn't it obvious? These kids were feelings isolated and and alienated and unwanted in a small, homogeneous country that didn't offer much space for social misfits. Of course they leapt at the chance to find some acceptance within a community of kindred spirits. Most people, and especially most young people, experience this feeling to some extent, but for some --like the maladroit social rejects we find here-- it's much more intense and more difficult to achieve, and consequently can be almost all-consuming. A deep and unrequited need for connection and community is a powerful force, and people desperate enough will do almost anything to find it and hold onto it... making them easy targets for more self-serving community leaders with their own interests in mind. 

This is the simple, sad why behind all the aberrent behavior LORDS OF CHAOS chronicles. It’s not for nothing that the first time we see Varg, he’s no threat to anyone, he’s just an awkward kid sitting by himself, trying to get up the courage to go talk to the cool guys. And the first thing Euronymous does is casually cut him down, sending him shame-faced back to his lonely corner. Obviously Varg is responsible for his own actions, and at some point crosses lines that no one is going to be able to bring him back from. But one act of casual cruelty begets another. The Vargs of the world don’t start out as bad seeds. The thing that makes them scary is that they’re so normal and pathetic. There’s nothing special about them, and that’s why no one ever sees them coming. Their flaws are mundane; flaws we could even be sympathetic to if they didn’t end up twisting into something so hateful. But one can’t help but think: what if Euronymous had been a little nicer? What if he hadn’t been so up his own ass on a power trip as the leader of his gang, what if he’d just learned to relax and enjoy living his dream on his parent’s dime, and offered a little acceptance and community instead of callous derision designed to feed his own ego? Straight society thought Mayhem’s loud music and scary makeup and morbid fixations were signs that they were deviant and dangerous. But the truth was something much more mundane: the only thing that made them dangerous was that they were selfish assholes, and one selfish asshole begets another. And if no one stops the cycle --especially where young men are concerned-- sometimes things end up getting really, really out of hand.

 LORDS OF CHAOS was originally slated to be directed by Sion Sono, who would almost certainly have made an amazing, intense movie out of the material, as he always does. But having someone who came from this world behind the camera gives the version we got a perspective that I don’t know that Sono would have understood. So much of the world of Mayhem is about aggressive provocations, about an art and aesthetic which are so extreme that they seem like they could only meaningfully address huge, abstract concepts. It’s easy to look at their art, and then at the extreme violence which ultimately invaded their real lives, and assume you’ve stumbled upon some dark, hidden underworld completely unfamiliar to outsiders. But Åkerlund deftly dissipates that kind of mythologizing with a sobering reminder that there’s nothing at all special about these guys, except that they really did make some pretty baller metal. Other than that, this exact thing could have happened to anyone. There was nothing epic about it, nothing unique, just ordinary, immature, insecure idiots bringing out the worst in each other. So maybe don’t be such an asshole all the time, and don’t reward other people for being assholes, and then we might just help build a world where we can all enjoy brutal-ass True Norwegian Black Metal and have ourselves a good time without hurting anyone. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

Like True Norwegian Black Metal itself, the movie works best as a blunt-force instrument, and is consequently blind to subtler wrinkles here (the irony of people who loathe their country and its culture becoming ethno-nationalists is utterly lost on it). But as a perfectly honed poison-pen letter to some real toxic assholes, tempered with just enough empathy to never lose sight of the fact that for all their problems, they were still just dumb kids, I can’t really imagine a better version of this same material. LORDS OF CHAOS may not be a great movie, and it may not even be a movie which has a lot of resonance to people who never thought much about extreme metal culture to begin with. But at least for me, here and now, it’s a movie that feels both uniquely prescient and deeply necessary right at this moment.


* Now out of prison and living in France, a country which happily welcomed this white nationalist arsonist and murderer and then had the audacity to complain about African immigrants.