Content warning: I’m not even going to list the triggers that Megalomaniac touches upon so extremely. Basically, if you have a content trigger of any kind, Megalomaniac probably exploits it for you. I can’t say I actually have any, but this film made me wonder if it was time to get one. You’ve been warned.
Of all of the horror subgenres to take hold from overseas, the world of New French Extremity was never one that really took hold for the United States to soullessly remake and dilute in the same way they did to J-horror, found footage, or even our own classics for a new audience. There was never really any interest in being associated with such an extreme genre (save for that awful Martyrs remake (2015), but we don’t really talk about her). Personally, I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of New French Extremity over the years (save for a select few titles I refuse to watch for my own health), even making it the focus of my European cinema thesis in college. Utilizing extreme violence as a storytelling metric for social inequality, racism, child abuse, homophobia, misogyny, political turmoil, mental illness, rape culture, and even other forms of direct violence, while controversial, is often the most effective way for a message to be brutally broadcast. If it makes you uncomfortable, good. The subgenre has since calmed down a bit in recent years, with even the likes of Gaspar Noé calming down a bit with his most recent outing (and magnum opus), Vortex, but there is still massive bloodshed to be found if you look for it. Sometimes, you just have to hop over the northeastern border to Belgium to find it in something like Megalomaniac.
Martha (Éline Schumacher) and Félix (Benjamin Ramon) are two siblings who have really been through some heavy stuff. During their childhood, their father was the notorious Belgian serial killer known as the “Butcher of Mons,” a sadistic killer of women who was never caught and Martha being born to one of his victims. Now, with their father dead, and them sharing their childhood home together, they both struggle to exist in the normal world successfully. Martha is stuck in a dead-end job as a janitor, endlessly abused by her coworkers, and living vicariously through social media; there isn’t a moment where Martha isn’t in a purgatorial state. Meanwhile, Félix, strange and aloof, even to Martha, begins to embrace his lineage, resuming the brutal killings of women that his father started 25 years prior. As Martha catches on to Félix’s actions, they both find ways to mutually benefit from their generational trauma together.
Off the bat, yes, we’re discussing generational trauma here. New French Extremity has now been Hereditary’d, and the results are mixed as a result of that. That’s not to say that Megalomaniac doesn’t have an interesting way of going about things at times, but in the New French Extremity way of storytelling, using such brutal tactics to tell a story that has now been told a million times over in films like The Babadook (2014), Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), The Boogeyman (2023), The Night House (2020), Saint Maud (2019), The Descent (2005), Us (2019), Smile (2022), The Witch (2015), The Invisible Man (2020), even Martyrs (2008), among many others, you need to have something entirely new to say if you’re going to insist upon using it as a plot device in 2023, to which I can’t say Megalomaniac does beyond the obvious “We inherit the worst of our parents,” “Abuse begets more abuse in an endless cycle,” “Patriarchy is a curse on all, even those who benefit from it,” etc.
Though, I could give it credit for using the vibes of the entire ordeal to paint its picture more than its words, because despite not having particularly eloquent things to say about trauma beyond the basics, the message is heard loud and clear just by how oppressively soul-crushing the film is as a whole. There are no moments of levity to be found here, and while that is a bit of a flaw in its own right, it does present a unique storytelling element in exploring the human condition in a parade of pure hopelessness. That might not sound fun, and it isn’t, but there is a sort of poetry that can come from something so steeped in depravity, lacking even the slightest bit of an ability to crack a smile at any point. There is no out, but to see how the world functions in such moments can be a fascinating study in humanity, or the lack of it, in Megalomaniac’s case.
And while Megalomaniac isn’t perhaps the most violent film ever made (that’s not saying much because Megalomaniac is extremely violent), what pushes the violence to the level, making it such a hard watch, even for me, is that agonizing cynicism I spoke of above. What begins as objectively horrific, and very realistic, violence becomes a parade of depravity that crushes the viewer’s soul from the outside in. The absence of hope of escape or any narrative of redemption from the blood-soaked perversion, leaves no wiggle room for anything resembling a happy ending, but then again, we never really wanted that for any character in this film, did we? Everyone is miserable, those on-screen and the ones in the audience watching.
Yet, there are still parts of Megalomaniac pulling me in, begging for any forgiveness from its narrative transgressions, particularly in Éline Schumacher’s (Krump) wonderfully disgusting performance as the tortured torturer Martha. Director Karim Ouelhaj (Une Réalité Par Seconde) puts my good sis through it and back in this film, and they somehow manage to find brief moments of redemption for Martha, even if just for a few milliseconds before damning her to hell all over again. Even when the depravity falls onto some more traditionally deserving victims, something that should feel like a triumphant win against abusers, there comes a moral quandary about who in this situation is more depraved than the other. It doesn’t necessarily keep it from feeling a little satisfying to watch, but to even bring me to that point after so looking forward to it from the start made me realize that Schumacher did her job wonderfully here.
I deeply respect Megalomaniac, even if it is both a film that I found to be narratively stale and, simultaneously, too much to handle at points. This is a parade of misery, the feel-bad film of the summer, whatever the opposite of Barbie is, etc. Yet, using such extreme forms of violence to tell a story so often told in so many horror films of late, there isn’t much that Megalomaniac touches on that hasn’t been done in more effective, chilling ways by better films. But are there points to be had, even if the overall message is paper thin, in telling the story in the most depraved, soul-crushing way so far? I’d say so, as that is an accomplishment in its own right, but just not enough points to make me ever want to experience what was on offer here ever again. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
In theaters September 8th, 2023.
Available on VOD September 26th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Dark Star Pictures website.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.