When Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968, it was lauded by critics and was a massive success at the box office. The spellbinding tale of Satanism and pregnancy (adapted from Ira Levin’s bestseller) was Roman Polanski’s first American film and went on to be nominated for two Oscars, winning Best Supporting Actress for Ruth Gordon. Ever since Polanski’s masterpiece was released there have been countless horror movies dealing with the fears that can surround maternity and birth. Pregnancy horror may not be as popular in the mainstream as say slashers or backwoods horror but it has given birth to a slew of great films including the recent Prevenge, a pitch-black, blood-soaked thriller and phenomenal first feature by Alice Lowe.
In the low-budget British horror film, which Lowe also wrote, the actress plays a woman named Ruth who is eight months pregnant and goes on a killing spree, murdering the people she believes are responsible for the death of her boyfriend. The twist here is that Ruth is acting under the instructions of her homicidal unborn child, with whom she has a telepathic link. Speaking in a high-pitched voice, the fetus paints a nihilistic view of the world, convincing her mother that people are cruel by nature and only interested in serving their own selfish needs. The plot is skimpy no doubt but Prevenge is best described as a series of satirical sketches, dissecting the social dynamics between a mother-to-be and the various men and women who come into her life. The first two people on Ruth’s mysterious hit list turn out to be appalling men — a goatish exotic pet-store owner (Dan Renton Skinner) and a sleazy, aggressively misogynistic disk jockey (Tom Davis) who spins at a downscale disco pub. Ruth’s encounter with DJ Dan is both the funniest and most gruesome of the scenes and praise is due for how Lowe cleverly balances the black comedy with grotesque practical effects. What at first may appear to be a feminist revenge thriller soon turns out to be much more. Ruth is an equal-opportunity serial killer — eveident in a finely written scene in which a career woman played by Kate Dickey denies her a job on account of her pre-existing condition. Over time, it becomes clear that her targets are selected for specific reasons, something only made clear during its third and final act.
Most of the film’s horror comes from the jitters of watching Ruth commit cruel acts of graphic murder but the scares are more psychological than visceral. Ruth is carrying a whole lot of grief and the most frightening aspect of Prevenge is the way in which she loses total control of her mind and body. Her pregnancy dramatically alters her appearance and psyche and throughout the film, she adopts a different persona for each of her murders until she is barely able to recognize herself. At its core, Prevenge is a brilliantly conceived meditation on prepartum anxiety and extreme anguish. The hallucinatory final third chapter of the film where Ruth dresses up and sets out to claim her last victim in a Halloween party climax reminiscent of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 is worth the price of admission alone.
Over the last two decades, Alice Lowe has worked with some of the biggest talents in British television and cinema, including the creators of Peep Show and Spaced. American audiences might also recognize Lowe from Sightseers, the pitch-black horror comedy that she starred in and co-wrote. Of all her projects, this might be the best work she’s done yet. What’s more, Prevenge comes from a place of personal experience since she directed this unsettling and equally amusing thriller during an 11-day stretch in the third trimester of her own pregnancy. It may sound like a gimmick or a novelty act but it isn’t. That Lowe herself was with child during the production only heightens the raw nerve of proceedings.
Prevenge comes in the midst of what’s shaping up to be an exciting time for female horror-auteurs. Prevenge may not be the first film about a woman being compelled to murder by her fetus — but it is the first that comes from the point of view of a woman working behind the camera. It’s hard to think of any modern film that better captures the nightmare side of pregnancy. One of the finest horror films made this decade and blessed with some evocative camerawork by Ryan Eddleston and a superb synth-based score from electronic duo Toydrum,
– Ricky D