Ruth (Sightseers’ Alice Lowe) is seven months pregnant and alone. The world is overwhelming. Her hormones fume, in order to foster the new life that grows in her belly. Every pane of glass inside this pet store is grubby and covered in grime. We can smell the cages; the shit and piss these hardly domesticated beasts leave to be cleaned by human servants. The shop’s owner (High-Rise’s Dan Renton Skinner) leers at Ruth, every pore on his ugly face clogged with grease and bacteria. Just as he offers to lead us to the back and show us his “personal collection”, she can’t take it anymore, sawing his throat open and letting him bleed out. Pooling onto the linoleum and running under the potential pet displays is Ruth’s future: life, flowing like a river, just as the baby will from her womb.
Prevenge is as much a body horror movie as it is a play on both the slasher and the revenge picture. Alice Lowe’s feature directorial debut (which she also wrote and starred in, all while seven-and-a-half months expectant herself) takes the typical victim topes and turns them on their heads. Now, its pregnant lead is carving a path of vengeance, courtesy of a tragedy seven seeming strangers may or may not have bestowed upon her. With Ruth, Lowe’s created a singular POV within the usually male-dominated horror genre – that of a woman whose body has been thrown into turmoil thanks to nature taking its ordinary course. Now, the anxiety and grief she feels regarding having to face a universe that threatens both her and her baby is externalized into acts of intense violence, each seemingly more graphic than the next. Yet while Prevenge sounds like an oppressive viewing affair on paper, Lowe ensures that her usual gallows humor makes it into the edit intact, alleviating the tension just when you think you can’t take any more.
It seems redundant to call a performance given by a pregnant woman about being pregnant “lived-in”, but that’s precisely what Alice Lowe does with Ruth. Every scene is told from her perspective, and we watch as she slices up pigs like DJ Dan (Tom Davis) – a slovenly, aging party boy who lives with his senile mother – after luring him in with the promise of sloppy, drunken sex. Being the gross creature he is, Dan of course doesn’t think she’s actually pregnant, and simply enjoys shagging “fat birds” because they’re a bit more generous in the bedroom (to paraphrase his crude lingo). Lowe is simmering with misanthropic rage the same way she was with Tina in Sightseers. Only her viciousness is tempered by own our preconceived notions of what it means to be a woman with child in modern society. Ruth’s violent scope isn’t myopic, either. Awful women like Ella (Kate Dickie) – a cruel Human Resources representative who urges Ruth to get motherhood “out of her system” – are quick to fall under the rampaging mommy’s blade. Lowe wins our empathy (even during Ruth’s worst moments) by effortlessly conveying each awful emotion she experiences – often silently whilst her victims look away. It’s a weird blend of personal experience and silent film performance that blends together brilliantly.
When the volcano erupts and Lowe transforms Ruth into an agent of blunt fury, we’re caught off guard just as easily as her victims are. The wide-eyed massacres are cacophonies of barely repressed emotional waves, rendered all the more affecting when the tragic event that unites these crimes and fuels Ruth’s wrath is revealed. This woman is inconsolable. However, once we’re back in the room she rents and watch her receive orders from the child she carries, it’s clear not everything may be on the up and up. Ruth becomes the epitome of the unreliable narrator, as pregnancy’s shifted her perception to the point that her new reality is nothing more than a hazy, unshakable nightmare. Worse yet, her own memories may also be distorted by both the side effects of expectancy and the fact that she’s possibly downright crazy. Lowe injects a woozy ambiguity into Prevenge that leaves us wondering: would Ruth do this regardless of her current biological state?
Lowe’s eye as a director is sharp, her compositions often jangly and ostensibly conceived on the fly. This chaotic tendency adds uneasiness to every scene, as a crammed bachelor’s chamber, office building conference room, or swanky flat are all easily invaded by Ruth’s murderous madness, irrespective of the time of day. Cinematographer Ryan Eddleston comes from the world of documentary filmmaking; his shifting frame keeping us on a grounded plane, even as we question the consistency of Ruth’s POV. The driving, bleak electro score from former UNKLE members Pablo Clements and James Griffith (operating under the moniker Toydrum) drops in at just the right moments, its neon-tinged keys linking Lowe’s directorial debut to horror’s past without ever feeling like an overt homage. At eighty-eight minutes, editor Matteo Bini connects the somewhat segmented narrative (each victim is introduced and dispatched in what are basically vignettes), uniting the whole as Prevenge moves at a clip.
Alice Lowe’s background in both short filmmaking and as a character actress come together and enable her to craft this rather assured freshman feature. It’d be easy to get caught up in the meta-textual aspects of how her own experience was channeled into this brutally side-splitting narrative, but even if Ruth were played by another actress who wasn’t actually pregnant, Prevenge would still be utterly remarkable. The way Lowe pays off both jokes and suspense set-ups is masterful, as we’re guffawing at a gag before gasping at an awful instance of gore (there’s a castration here that would cause Meir Zarchi to wince). Most of all, Prevenge proves that the actress-cum-filmmaker has a sense of cringe comedy that’s distinctly her own, and it’ll be grand watching a woman continue to bring her own brand of cruel genre toys to a table usually reserved by boys.
Prevenge is now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.