Alice Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge, this slasher comedy that deals with loneliness, loss and motherhood. Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant widow who embarks upon a killing spree seemingly under the influence of her unborn baby. Convinced that her child is leading her on a trail of vengeance in the wake of her husband’s death from a climbing accident, Ruth’s mind continues to unravel.
For a narrative that caters heavily toward themes of isolation and inhumanity, the camera work capitalizes on such feelings within the pet shop setting of the opening scene. Lowe’s use of extreme close-ups on the faces of Ruth and the creepy shop owner brilliantly displays how human interaction can be overbearing and almost intrusive the more isolated we become. As tensions escalate, we are suitably met with a primal sense of emotional detachment as we linger on similar close-ups upon the caged animals for sale. Instead of adorable kittens, puppies or other more generic family-friendly pets, instead of snakes, spiders and exotic insects that initially seem to peak Ruth’s interest. The black, lifeless eyes of such creatures appropriately sets the tone for Ruth’s cold obedience to the demands of her unborn child and the trajectory of the film as a whole.
Ruth’s murderous rampage is intercut with visual references that allude to her husband’s death in a way that requires no exposition. The sense of loss and the lack of control or direction are apparent from the rage, solemn musings and emotional inconsistencies we take away from Ruth and the imagined voice of her baby. In regards to the more reprehensible murder victims (and for some, reprehensible is a vast understatement) Lowe gives us an interesting reversal of power plays at Ruth’s hands that might even be seen as empowering or compelling. It’s a very nuanced performance where the real and naturalistic pleasantries make it all the more shocking when sadistic or brutal violence permeates seemingly casual chat.
Ruth also pays regular visits to her midwife (Jo Hartley), who uses the supportive, preparatory rhetoric that mothers-to-be would normally expect to hear. Yet for Ruth, these words about the baby being in control of her body are hilariously prophetic. When speaking to the midwife, Ruth’s assertion that her body has become a “crap, banged-out car” with her baby at the wheel accommodates the notion of being an empty vessel without direction, purpose or a viable support system – a metaphor which seems to speak volumes about loss.
The film often shares a visual style similar to that of “kitchen-sink realism” through handheld camera movement and down-to-earth dialogue in unglamorous, real-life scenarios – albeit with a few axes or knives floating around in the mise-en-scene to subliminally lead up to Ruth’s killings. The social realist approach perfectly encapsulates the spectrum between callous and caring behavior upon which Ruth and her victims sit. A scene in which Ruth seduces a DJ at a depressing mid-week club night seems to perfectly sum up such a spectrum. We have the socially unconscious DJ Dan vomiting into his wig (part of his “70’s disco night” get up) and then continue to snog Ruth, who seems completely detached both physically and emotionally from the experience. After the scene reaches its grotesque high point, we see Ruth gently escort Dan’s elderly disorientated mother back to bed – showcasing the underlying presence of human care in such a bizarre and dark tale whilst reminding audiences why we should root for Ruth at all. Such reminders are not necessarily seldom seen, as the prevailing theme of loneliness is what ultimately keeps us in touch with Ruth throughout her unhinged journey of bloody vengeance.
It is clear that Lowe is well versed in the staples of the slasher sub-genre and a wide range of horror influences. One scene in particular of Ruth in an underpass strongly reminded me of the deeply unsettling underpass scene in Andrzej Żuławski’s divisive Possession (1981). The film’s immersive atmosphere owes a great deal to the sound design where diegetic sound is so real that it is often unsettling, oppressive and wince-inducing. The jukebox soundtrack boasts some wonderful song cues and Argento-esque pulsing techno pieces that both compliments and appropriately undermines the horror.
Lowe’s previous comedy credits – along with her starring role in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (which she wrote with co-star Steve Oram) – appropriately frames Prevenge as a strikingly well-conceived debut feature that is punctuated by shocking violence and dark deadpan humor.