Horror has seen its fair share of pregnancy horror stories over the decades with mixed results. For every genre favorite like Inside or Rosemary’s Baby over the years, there have also been plenty of Devil’s Due‘s out there that didn’t quite get it right, so I tend to walk into films like this with a healthy dose of skepticism. Luckily, Alice Lowe’s directorial debut Prevenge belongs in the former category, though it’s a truly singular experience all on its own. Blending unabashed bloodshed, heavily biting comedy, and a touch of genuine dramatic sensibility, Lowe–a seasoned comedian–succeeds in delivering (yes, pun intended) a unique horror story that hits all the right beats.
Prevenge follows Ruth (Lowe, pulling triple duty here as star, writer, and director), a pregnant woman who has suffered the loss of her partner to a tragic climbing accident. Thereafter, she begins hearing the voice of her unborn fetus, but it is not comforting Ruth in her time of mourning. Instead, it is instructing her to hunt down and kill the people who may have played even a minor role in her partner’s death. Naturally, Ruth obliges, setting off on an enraged murder spree on a twisted, and especially hilarious, quest for vengeance
Lowe wrote the film’s script while pregnant herself, inspired by her fear of losing work in show business due to the fact that she was with child–an all too real fear for many actresses who seek to tackle motherhood in a male-dominated industry. Lowe’s approach in Prevenge unapologetically highlights the less flowery aspects of pregnancy from the standpoint of a single mother, from stress and uncertainty to insomnia and loneliness. Of course, these trying emotions are all heightened by the sinister messages coming from the potty-mouthed fetus in her womb, so it’s no wonder that Ruth has trouble seeing the bright side of things. “I think nature’s a bit of a cunt, don’t you?” she dryly asks her midwife (Jo Hartley), a character who receives the brunt of Ruth’s searing cynicism in a number of wonderfully written scenes.
The joys of motherhood these are not, and Ruth’s likening of her particular pregnancy to a hostile takeover sets the stage for her internal battle in Prevenge–not just with the murderous demands of her evil spawn, but with the unresolved and often crippling emotions that have accompanied the major loss she has suffered. In that respect, Prevenge‘s script does a wonderful job of capturing the outlandish horror of Ruth’s particular situation while still somehow maintaining a sense of empathy for this truly heartbroken woman. Is she a remorseless murderer? Absolutely. Yet, as the story unfolds and Ruth begins to spiral out of control as she re-imagines her husband’s death over and over again, you can’t help but want some semblance of justice and good fortune to befall the woman. “I’m not grieving… I’m gestating fucking rage!” she shrieks in a frenzy at one potential victim as he tries to reason with her. The film is filled with over-the-top moments of comedy like this shaded with genuine sadness. It is hilarious and then heartbreaking. Then bloody. Then funny again. The beauty in Lowe’s script is that it manages to elicit this cycle of reactions repeatedly in truly effective ways.
There is no way to discuss the film’s merits without heaping due praise upon Lowe’s commanding performance. An actress who has long made a name for herself as a noteworthy writer and player in the British comedy scene (see Hot Fuzz, TV’s Beehive, and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, which she co-wrote), she effortlessly slips into a role that is equal parts wry, threatening, and pitiable. Ruth is going to be hard to like for many viewers, and reasonably so; she is on a cold-blooded murder spree, after all. Still, Lowe’s delivery is so undeniably charming that you can’t help but root for her. She is a marvel to behold as she teeters back and forth between exasperation, despondence, and wild-eyed mania from one laughably absurd kill scene to the next with effortless nuance, and the film is worth watching for her performance alone.
As a horror comedy, Prevenge balances its tonal shifts with ease, seamlessly interweaving the macabre with bone dry humor to a riotous result. However, its aforementioned dips into dramatic territory may not sit as well with genre fans who would prefer not to have their laughs intruded upon by unwelcome affect. Like it or not though, Prevenge has more of an emotional center than most modern horror films, even in the midst of the overtly comical elements that permeate the film all the way to the last shot. Whether this intersection with character drama was wholly intentional by Lowe from the get-go or an unavoidable byproduct of writing a film based on avenging a tragic loss, I personally gravitated to the film more because of it.
Ultimately, Prevenge surprisingly proved to be one of my favorite entries at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals. I am confident that horror fans who can appreciate cynicism-laden humor and a good throat slashing–punctuated by a bit of uncomfortably realistic human emotion, of course–will find Lowe’s film to be an enjoyable ride.
Prevenge screened at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 10, 2017 and will arrive on Shudder in May 2017.