‘Megalomaniac’ Review: New Belgian Horror Boasts Beautiful Carnage And Brutal Serial Killers [Panic Fest 2023]
With his new film Megalomaniac, Belgian filmmaker Karim Ouelhaj proves that the New French Extremity is still alive and well with a deranged tale about inherited trauma, serial killers, and incest absolutely doused in blood. This meditation of two siblings reckoning with their father’s bloodlust is as fascinating as it is depraved, meant to challenge viewers about the nature of violence.
Megalomaniac opens with text cards sharing the story of real-life serial killer the Butcher of Mons, who was never identified. The killer left bags of body parts in the Belgian city of Mons and was thought to have killed at least five women. Here, Ouelhaj imagines a scenario where the Butcher has two children, Felix and Marta, who he raised in a decaying mansion. And, according to the opening scene, at least one of these children was the product of raping one of his victims.
Flash forward and Felix and Marta still live in their childhood home but their father is dead. Marta works at a nearby factory and Felix follows in his serial killer father’s footsteps, resurrecting the Butcher who seemingly when quiet 25 years ago. Marta is tortured by men at work, assaulted and battered with no one to speak up for her. Felix meanwhile hunts women and kills them similarly to his father, leaving body parts strewn across the countryside. While they seemingly have a disturbing routine, Felix one day brings Marta home a companion, a victim he’s kidnapped and chained to the wall. As Marta is told how to care for her new “pet”, paired with growing torture from men at work, her grip on reality slips and she begins to embrace the violence of her bloodline.
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As can be expected, Felix and Marta don’t have the healthiest sibling relationship. Marta fantasizes about a sexual relationship with her brother, while he brings her kidnapped women to keep her company. He constantly demeans her while claiming he knows what’s best for her, a twisted power dynamic that so obviously mimics the poisons of patriarchal power. And yet they are bound by blood and shared trauma, both seeing haunting images of their father (for Felix) and the ghostly visages of his victims (for Marta).
Eline Schumacher is stunning as Marta, displaying an incredible emotional range that walks this fine line of meekness and rage. She embodies the idea pounded into her head that women are lesser and subservient. Opposite Schumacher is Benjamin Ramon as the haunting Felix, whose gaunt face and jet-black hair make him look a little too obviously sinister. However, he does embody a small man who thinks he’s powerful simply because he hates women.
Megalomaniac follows the New French Extremity trend of brutalizing the female body every step of the way as the film opens and ends with a traumatic birth. Every female character seems to exist to suffer, which makes this already difficult movie almost unbearable to watch. Perhaps it’s just following age-old horror trends of misogyny. Or perhaps there’s something to be said about portrayals of female rage.
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In fact, Ouelhaj’s female characters, for lack of a better term, go feral. From the opening sequence where a victim of the Butcher gives birth against her will, covered in blood, to Marta’s own descent into madness, they are filled with gut-wrenching rage. These aren’t just women screaming in fear; these are women screaming in anger at how men have treated them.
Their house is a gothic manor, filled to the brim with ghosts, crumbling walls, and dim lighting that makes every shadow sinister. This isn’t really a home, but a tomb, a haunted place that can’t even be touched by sunlight. This makes Megalomaniac feel almost timeless, suspended in a nightmare reality populated by a family’s deepest traumas. Cinematographer François Schmitt films it beautifully, knowing how to expertly make this home feel like the scariest of haunted houses. Every shot feels like a painting, a painting that you are terrified of but somehow can’t stop looking at.
Megalomanaic is by no means a pleasant watch. Some could even call it downright miserable. But, it is also an exquisitely repulsive one that isn’t afraid to find beauty in abjection. Ouelhaj’s film is challenging and bizarre, certain to garner the attention of extreme horror fans hungry for new depravity. And depravity it brings, as Ouelhaj’s eye for violence is as captivating as it is disturbing. This movie feels cursed and dirty, and for that reason, I love it even more. If that’s your vibe, then this is a required watch.
‘Megalomaniac’ is top-tier European arthouse feel-bad horror cinema that, paired with stunning cinematography, will thrill extreme horror fans.