Prevenge review – audacious horror from a mother of invention

Pregnancy is a bloody business as writer-director Alice Lowe stars as an expectant mother urged into a killing spree by her unborn baby

Alice Lowe, the co-creator and star of Ben Wheatley’s savage 2012 black comedy Sightseers, has cooked up an outrageous antenatal shocker that brings together murder, madness and maternity in a fever dream of fear and farce. A tale of bloody revenge enacted by a pregnant woman at the apparent behest of her unborn child, Prevenge is an audacious directorial feature debut for Lowe that leaves strange stretch marks on both comedy and horror, the genres from which it was born.

Just as Rosemary’s Baby playfully explored prepartum paranoia, so Lowe’s cut-throat psychodrama transforms feelings of alienation and estrangement into a delirious odyssey as dark as a pool of coagulating blood. “Messy, isn’t it?” coos the killer after emasculating one of her more boorish victims, leaving him dribbling pathetically on to a shagpile rug that will definitely “need a bit of bleach”.

Traumatised by the death of her partner, Ruth (Lowe) starts hearing voices from the womb telling her to kill. From a reptilian pet shop proprietor (Dan Renton Skinner) to a supercilious businesswoman (a typically sharp Kate Dickie), Ruth preys upon a diverse group of people tangentially connected by an Agatha Christie-style accident of fate. Occasionally, Ruth’s eye-for-an-eye resolve starts to weaken, only to be reignited by the demanding taunts of “Baby”, whom she is assured “knows best”. “I’m scared of her,” admits the increasingly conflicted mother-to-be, tellingly describing her pregnancy as “like a hostile takeover”.

Alice Lowe in Prevenge.
‘Avenging angel’: Alice Lowe as Ruth in Prevenge. Photograph: Publicity image

From the 70s cult trash of I Don’t Want to Be Born, through the 90s Gallic gore of Baby Blood to the more recent derivative dullness of Devil’s Due, the mysteries of reproduction have long proved an exploitable horror staple. Yet having written Prevenge while pregnant, and shot it in a fortnight shortly before giving birth, Lowe brings a personal insight to this project that raises it above the level of such antecedents, gleefully subverting generic expectations.

Like Frances McDormand’s indomitable Marge Gunderson in Fargo, Ruth’s increased size merely makes her more imposing, adding heft and power to her remorseless mission. She’s an avenging angel, inspired by the cackling Furies of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1934 oddity Crime Without Passion, which she watches in her lonely hotel room. As for her baby, she’s a not-too-distant relative of the “children of rage” from Cronenberg’s The Brood, prompting Ruth’s exclamation that “I’m not grieving, I’m gestating!” Elsewhere, a low-angle shot of her writhing in an underpass clearly evokes an infamous sequence from Andrzej Żuławski’s magnificently unhinged Possession, with the ghosts of Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible lurking in the shadows.

With such seething lineage, it’s impressive that Prevenge manages to be as funny as it does. Just as Lowe’s expressive face seems forever to be teetering between amusement and disdain, laughter and threat, so her film trips nimbly between gross-out comedy (a vomity snog will turn your stomach and curl your lip), stabby gore and painful melancholia. The locations may be the dreary offices, dismal pubs and seedy streets beloved of “realist” British cinema, but cinematographer Ryan Eddleston shoots the crepuscular locales with a woozy, dreamy feel, conjuring a non-specific neo-noir landscape shot through with violent splashes of colour.

Cranking up the tension is a swirling soundtrack by Pablo Clements and James Griffith (AKA Toydrum) which evokes the hypnotic Goblin synth scores from Dario Argento’s vintage-era chillers and adds a touch of unearthly, sci-fi inflected magic. Back in the days of the “video nasties”, bootleg cassettes of the Prevenge score would have been furtively passed around by eager fans, while VHS copies of the film itself would have shared snug shelf space with the outlawed likes of The Witch Who Came From the Sea.

Watch the trailer for Prevenge.

“You have absolutely no control over your mind or body now,” says Jo Hartley’s caring but condescending midwife. “Baby will tell you what to do…” More bizarrely, “Baby” also seems to have made Ruth invisible, a strange sort of superpower that allows her killing spree to continue unchecked. Perhaps it’s all in her head – not just the voices but also the bloodshed. Over the course of two viewings, I’ve watched Prevenge shape-shift like its central character, donning different identities, adopting contradictory stances, staunchly refusing to be pigeonholed.

With its rough edges and raw imperfections, this impressively peculiar film (upon which Jonathan Glazer’s adventurous Birth was apparently an influence) has the spark of experimental life, an unruly, unfinished quality that adds to its anarchic charm. As for Lowe, who reportedly breast-fed and changed nappies in the editing room, she’s proved herself a multitasking mother of invention. I can’t wait to see what she creates next.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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