The Butcher of Mons was a moniker given to a notorious serial killer in Mons, Belgium, who left bags of dismembered women along visible roadsides. As heinously and abruptly as these discoveries began, they ceased in 1997, and the Mons Butcher’s identity remains unknown today. Megalomaniac supposes the atrocious serial killer had offspring that carried on his heritage. It yields extremism, confrontational horror that aims to offend as much as it does evoke wrath, and societal reflection. It’s at once compelling and uncomfortable to watch.
Megalomaniac opens with a birthing scene that, at first, could be mistaken for a violent torture scene. A blood-drenched woman screams in fury and pain, her eyes blood red from the strain, while the Butcher and his older child await their new family member. Cut to the present, where adult siblings Martha (Eline Schumacher) and Felix (Benjamin Ramon) live alone in the spacious yet crumbling Gothic manor. Felix dedicates himself wholly to following his father’s footsteps, modus operandi and all, while the timid Martha works nights as a janitor at a factory. Their unconventional way of life seems to unravel once Martha suffers a series of grotesque assaults at work.
Writer/Director Karim Ouelhaj blends nihilistic, extreme horror with an arthouse psychological descent to capture the unraveling of Martha. From the outset, Martha is established as browbeaten, devoid of self-esteem, and eager for love and stability. She’s subservient to her more dominant brother, nearly mute at work, and plagued by vivid nightmares of demonic figures. Many that bleed over into her waking life. Constant torment by factory workers Luc (Pierre Nisse), L’ouvrier (Quentin Lasbazeilles), and a guilty by passiveness Jerome (Wim Willaert) tips Martha’s precarious grip on reality.
Ouelhaj lingers on the faces of the perpetrators, victim, and the complicit in Martha’s brutal assaults, captured in near silence to draw out the visceral discomfort. Instead of turning straight to revenge, Martha seeks solace in the concept of family, leading to a vastly different and grotesque means of achieving it. It’s a character study of a woman born and raised by a serial killer that targeted women and how it distorts her.
Martha’s story is shot like a Baroque painting, with sharp contrasts of light and pitch-black shadows. Martha’s inner demons are lurking within, and an increasing sense that perceptions aren’t what they seem. François Schmitt’s foreboding yet beguiling Gothic cinematography and muted palettes in conjunction with Gary Moonboots and Simon Fransquet‘s primal score lend a dreamlike aesthetic to the boundary-pushing, hyper-violent horror.
It helps mute the gruesomeness that evokes sympathy for a character prone to condemnable actions. Schumacher’s portrayal of Martha is remarkable; the deft shifts in personality keep you guessing while drawing you into her orbit. The lines of morality blur as prey transforms into predator. The more unhinged its characters become, the more nightmarish fantasy creeps in until a Grand Guignol finale with no easy answers.
Megalomaniac is a conversation starter. Ouelhaj doesn’t handhold and leaves much of Martha’s story up for interpretation. It’s aggressive and unrelenting in its torture, both Martha and the film’s many victims. Morality exists in a grey space, eliciting sympathy for an otherwise repulsive beast; even the title is a starting point of examination. Ouelhaj uses Martha’s world as a provocative means of criticizing the patriarchy and frames a fictional story around a true unsolved crime as an intentional affront. It keeps its audience at perhaps too much distance and it’s a bit too dense in its introspections, but it makes for an intense, unsettling journey for those willing to wade into the murky depths of taste.
Megalomaniac made its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival and is currently awaiting distribution.