Not So Black and White: Black Metal in Film

Black metal, if represented at all, is often given a bad rap in films. Its fans are usually the bad guys, the school shooters, the satan worshippers, the deviant teens – and whilst there is definitely evidence that supports those stereotypes, it is far from a fair view.

With the first piece of footage from Jonas Åkerlund’s upcoming film Lords of Chaos being released in the form of a music video for Metallica’s ‘ManUNkind’, lets take a look at the true stories behind the film, and how they’ve influenced depictions of black metal in cinema.

Åkerlund’s film will be based on a 1998 non-fiction book of the same name, which centres around the key players of Norway’s metal scene, and is a disturbing tale of suicide, arson, and murder. The book contains interviews with convicted murderer and musician Varg Vikernes, who along with his victim, Mayhem’s Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth, unleashed the dark side of the black metal movement.

2008 documentary Until The Light Takes Us could also be considered an adaptation of the book, as it takes us through the history, ideology, and aesthetics of the subculture in full gory detail. The interviews with Vikernes are unsettling, more so than when they are in writing, as he comes across as a calm, collected, and charming guy – not someone who is capable of stabbing another person 23 times, or being part of the radical right wing. The rest of the documentary follows genuine good guy and one half of Darkthrone ,Glyve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, as he reflects on the past and takes the viewer on an amazingly unbiased guided tour of black metal history.

He discusses Helvete (which translates to Hell) and Deathlike Silence Productions, the record store and label owned by Euronymous, which gave a place and a platform for this new form of metal to emerge. Also touched on is the devastatingly disordered mind of Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin, whose morbid fascination with death led him to create the iconic black metal aesthetic of ragged clothes and a painted face, and how his friendship with Euronymous became a catalyst for his violent suicide.

It would not be a proper discussion of black metal without a mention of the infamous church burnings, which whilst often attributed to Satanists (which was only a shock tactic used by bands, very few of them actually worshipped the Devil), was the result of a discomfort from the increasing presence of Christianity in Pagan Norway – for a modern genre, black metal (and particularly Varg Vikernes, an admitted Neo Nazi, or “Thulean”) held incredibly traditional and nationalist values.

Of course, it is clear to see why there is such a negative view of black metal and its fans, it’s hardly got the happiest history – but a few fictional films have delved deeper than the stories of its founding fathers. A genre that prides itself on anger, sadness, and violent imagery, it is only fitting that a touching story of grief and isolation goes with it hand in hand. Metalhead, a 2013 film from Iceland is exactly that.

After witnessing the gruesome accidental death of her metal loving brother Baldur, young Hera adopts his style, records, and takes ownership of his guitar in homage to him. Through years of being an outcast, being called a devil worshipper, and generally causing trouble in her small town, Hera knows she always can find the spirit of her brother in black metal. Here the genre is seen as a source of hope and catharsis in times of emotional estrangement, much like the true story of Dead, who played out his fantasies of death through his music and performance. A demo tape that Hera records catches the ear of a Norwegian band, and they set out to find her with a proposal of releasing it on their label in Oslo. Hera’s mother notices how happy her daughter becomes when she is involved with music, and in a heartwarming final scene, metal brings the family together again as they dance to Megadeth – a celebration of Baldur’s life and Hera’s future.

The most recent black metal-centric film is horror comedy Deathgasm, the 2015 debut from New Zealand director Jason Lei Howden. Again, our protagonist Brodie is a bullied outcast at odds with his family and peers, until he forms a band with fellow metal fan Zakk and plays a mysterious piece of music called ‘The Black Hymn’. Cue Shaun of the Dead levels of stupidity and hilarity. A refreshing approach to black metal – of course, this does nothing to reject the Satanic connections, but it also doesn’t say anything negative about the genre or its fans. If anything, it’s somewhat of a feel-good film, Brodie attracts the cute girl before any of the demon business gets started, so it’s not even like she falls for him because he has “proved himself” or any of that nonsense throughout the course of the film.

I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that I hope Åkerlund’s film isn’t just sensationalised violence designed to enrage the media. Of course, I want it to be emotional and disturbing (and factually correct), but to make a real biographical film you have to recognise the moments of light within the darkness. VHS footage of Per ‘Dead’ Ohlin (who is being played by Jack Kilmer, which has set my little black heart aflutter to no end), shows him frolicking in a field with his friends, a far cry away from the man who kept dead animals under his bed and buried his stage clothes so they would rot.

There are countless memes about Varg liking his cornflakes crispy rather than soggy. It is impossible for even the most morbid of subcultures to be without humour – when asked about Lords of Chaos, Fenriz (who is against the production) said he wants Reese Witherspoon to play him. Who knows, that could well happen, as his and Vikernes’ casting have not yet been announced. Rory Culkin is Euronymous, and Sky Ferreira is playing a character who is currently unknown. This inclusion of a female character in a wholly testosterone driven story tells me that the narrative deviates from the true story, something which I don’t think fans will be too impressed with.

The film arrives next year, and despite some apprehension towards Åkerlund directing, I say who better to do it than the ex-Bathory drummer who acted as an inspiration for many of those involved in the black metal chaos?

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