Stylistic overreach and neglect of the uninitiated make "Until the Light Takes Us" a too-specialized examination of Norway's black-metal movement and the aberrant culture surrounding it.

Stylistic overreach and neglect of the uninitiated make “Until the Light Takes Us” a too-specialized examination of Norway’s black-metal movement and the aberrant culture surrounding it. Pic’s true-crime aspects are morbidly fascinating — the gothic Norwegians involved seem to have spent as much time killing, self-mutilating and church-burning as they did grinding out scream-soaked music. But the more sensational aspects of the story take a backseat to atmospherics and personalities. Exposure will be limited, perhaps to horror-fantasy festivals.

Producer-helmers Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell have obvious, admirable goals — to make a film that reflects the self-consciously alienated/eerie black-metal scene in early ’90s Oslo, and the nihilistic philosophy and devotion to paganism that launched a small war against Norwegian culture and religion. It’s not a cuddly group they profile: The burning of the more than 900-year-old Fantoft Stave Church and the use of terms like “faggot” to refer to one black metallist’s murder victim don’t generate much empathy for the film’s subjects. They wouldn’t want it, anyway.

But a viewer can watch “Until the Light Takes Us,” and still have no idea what black metal is. The film’s principal figure, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell, of the band Darkthrone, says he never wanted to follow in “the garish footsteps of commercial death metal,” but unless you’re hip to some very subtle nuances, you’ll have no idea what differentiates one genre from the other.

The most eloquent spokesman for the movement is Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, of a band called Burzum, who is in interviewed while serving 21 years for the murder of another black metallist. Vikernes has the true believer’s lack of self-reflection, but he at least can articulate the conflicts he saw between “original” Norwegian culture and the one he claims was corrupted by Christianity (some thousand years previous).

“Light” does become more interesting as it progresses. There’s real, if woefully unexplored, tension between Nagell and visual artist Bjarne Melgaard, who incorporates black-metal imagery and photos into a gallery installation; Nagell seems to dismiss what he views as an absorption of his art into someone else’s. Kjetil “Frost” Haraldstad, a conceptual artist who is seen being wooed by Melgaard, gives the film’s most alarming performance, burning art onstage by breathing fire, then slashing his forearm and neck before collapsing in a heap. It’s wonderful how real blood and violence can still be so arresting, in the era of “Saw V.”

Production values are adequate, although the camera often seems very jumpy for no particular reason.

Until the Light Takes Us

Production

A Field Pictures presentation, in association with Artists Public Domain and the Group Entertainment. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell. Executive producer, Gill Holland. Directed by Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell.

Crew

Camera (color), Ewell, Odd Reinhardt Nicolaysen; editor, Andrew Ford; sound, Oyvind Rydland, John Harlow, Robin Coulthard, Kjetil Hoidal. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival (competing), Nov. 5, 2008. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Gylve "Fenriz" Nagell, Varg "Count Grishnackh" Vikernes, Jan Axel "Hellhammer" Blomberg, Harmony Korine, Kjetil "Frost" Haraldstad, Bjarne Melgaard. (Norwegian dialogue)
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