Mitchell Brown says Megalomaniac centers on patriarchy, unflinching brutality, and a troubled character’s tightrope walk of empathy.
Hyper-violent horror films are difficult to thoughtfully provide analysis on objectively. The grotesque and depraved shine a spotlight on characters that are challenging to identify with, and films ride the line between entertainment and apprehension. Megalomaniac is a Belgian horror film written and directed by Karim Ouelhaj that certainly does it all. Equally stunning and appalling to look at, it follows a victim of circumstance who is complicit in the vile actions she commits.
Martha (Eline Schumacher) is a timid woman who lives with her brother Felix (Benjamin Ramon). Felix’s demeanor toward his sister is cold and domineering within the home they share—a dilapidated home that would make the Perron family's house in The Conjuring (2013) look warm and inviting. Felix is a sadomasochistic serial killer, which the news calls “Mons Butcher,” who preys on vulnerable women, while Martha works the night shift in a factory and has to deal with constant harassment from her coworker Luc (Pierre Nisse), which escalates to violent abuse.
Megalomaniac focuses on Martha’s psychological and moral decline and how her life has become an endless cycle of violence. Through men berating and demeaning her, the film displays themes of misogyny and the patriarchal. It's easy to sympathize with her early on, but as the film progresses, her behavior devolves from meek to verbally cold and distant and finally to outright violence against others. It appears she’s following in her brother’s psychotic footsteps. Unlike Felix, who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others, Martha becomes increasingly detached from her actions and the pain she inflicts. She becomes a double, a dark ego, witnessing her actions as they happen, which feeds her steadily altered perceptions of the world. Martha suffers from a form of Depersonalization disorder when committing her atrocities. In this way, the film dives into how the cycle of violence further victimizes those affected by it.
While Megalomaniac isn't a total gorefest, certain moments of violence—primarily acts committed by Felix—are particularly cruel, harsh, and blunt. We're introduced to Felix as he brutally beats a woman in the head with a crowbar. Ouelhaj doesn’t glorify the violence, and it never goes so far as to feel exploitative. Still, it's shocking and immediately makes any scene with Felix, given what he’s capable of, that much tenser. The violence feels reminiscent of scenes in Zodiac (2007), with the film coldly depicting an attitude that says, “This is happening, and we’re not going to shy away from it.”
Ouelhaj isn't afraid to make the viewing experience wholly unpleasant and disturbing, especially with the film's treatment of Martha. Softening it would make it feel disingenuous. Showing the brutality is essential, but it's immensely difficult to watch. While it isn't enjoyable, it’s undoubtedly effective. Francois Schmitt’s cinematography elevates the film's brutal tone, painting Martha's world as bleak and dreary. The sky is always overcast, and there’s never a point at which we see the sun—possibly reflecting Martha’s view of the world—all she knows is hopelessness.
Megalomaniac is a certifiable case of a "feel-bad" movie. It's the type of feature that makes one feel like they need to shower after watching it. From the first scene to the last, Ouelhaj takes us on a journey of unpleasantness with morally distorted characters and doesn’t shy away from highlighting his story's most disturbing elements. That is compelling in its own right, but audiences like myself may struggle with the viewing experience.
Megalomaniac had its United States premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 19th, 2022.