The term “body horror” feels redundant at first — too obvious to even be a category of its own. If someone’s body isn’t in some kind of danger, is it even horror at all? That’s true enough, but body horror takes it even further — the scares in these terrifying films are derived specifically from the destruction, transformation, or exploitation of the body itself. The graphic violence and hideous special effects can be tough to stomach, and most of these films are built for cult appeal. The gooey, melting orgy scene in Society; the ass-to-mouth daisy chains of The Human Centipede; the surgical fetishes of Excision and American Mary; and the sex party of exploding call girls in Frankenhooker are some of the subgenre’s more gloriously garish examples, but classics like Freaks, The Thing, Eraserhead, and The Fly fall under the body-horror umbrella, too.
Pregnancy horror is a fertile body-horror subgenre, and Alice Lowe’s directorial debut, Prevenge, is one of the best examples to date. Watch a string of pregnancy horror movies and you’ll find extravagant horrors visited upon women. Not only is the body subject to over-the-top violation, the specific target is the reproductive system — the biblical center of the female purpose, the starting point of human life, the ultimate sacred space. The French film Inside is based entirely around a madwoman trying to cut a fetus out of another woman’s stomach with scissors, and many movies have used women as involuntary hosts for demon breeding, corrupting the ultimate female power to give life.
Prevenge, which follows a pregnant woman taking orders from her fetus to murder people, is different, using pregnancy as a metaphor for a woman’s loss of control. “As if pregnancy and childbirth isn’t violent,” Lowe — who wrote, directed, and starred in the film while in her third trimester — told Vulture recently. “It’s blood. It’s screaming. It’s transformation. It’s the stuff of horror.” What if your pregnancy doesn’t feel like a miracle? What if you’re angry, unhappy, or alone? If you’re not jumping for joy, are you still a mother, or even a woman at all?
“There’s this idea that in pregnancy your body’s on your side, and it knows what to do,” says Lowe, who intermittently dotes on her toddler over the course of the interview. “But we as women — as intelligent, cultured, civilized women — we’ve lost touch with nature. So when someone tells you to just ‘trust nature,’ you’re like, ‘No! We don’t live in nature! We’re not cave people!’ It’s this idea that somehow women should be more connected to nature, because we’re women, and we should be completely comfortable with that. But there’s a dissonance there where I’m like, ‘But nature makes my period come every month. Nature gives me pain every month. Nature rips my body apart when I have a baby.’ So you’re telling me to trust nature? Mother Nature’s a bitch.”
Rosemary’s Baby is still the most enduring and acclaimed example of pregnancy horror, but a modern-day rewatch proves how vital the feminine honesty of Prevenge is. Polanski mines plenty of anxiety from Mia Farrow’s gaslighting, but the film came out in 1968, when we were beholden to a very different set of rules for how women ought to behave onscreen. Remember: When Rosemary wakes up the morning after she’s been drugged and raped by the Devil, she sees the claw marks on her back and asks her husband if he had sex with her while she was passed out. He apologizes for the scratches and tells her, “It was kind of fun, in a necrophile sort of way.” In the ’60s, that’s something a man could say to get himself out of trouble!
Of course, the real reason for the scratches was because Rosemary’s husband made a deal with a coven of witches to let her womb be used to gestate the Antichrist. Hijacking the female reproductive system is a well-worn trope in pregnancy horror; the same thing happens in movies like Antibirth, Devil’s Due, and The Unborn. Prevenge, refreshingly, isn’t interested in any of that. Instead, the movie takes its inspiration from revenge thrillers. “I’ve got this theory that women are often like supporting structures within scripts, and in society. They’re the wife, the mother. ‘Let me help you! I’ll self-sacrifice so that you can achieve your goals!’” she says. “One of my deliberate things was, ‘Why isn’t there a female Taxi Driver?’ I don’t understand that. Why aren’t we used to seeing women playing maverick, outsider roles?”
Prevenge isn’t the first film about a woman being compelled to murder by her fetus — movies like Inseminoid from 1981 and the French film Baby Blood from 1990 got there first. The former follows an interplanetary archaeologist who gets impregnated by an alien and starts killing the other crew members on her research vessel; the latter is about a circus performer whose womb gets infiltrated by an ancient being that will one day usurp the human race, but in the meantime needs its host to feed it blood for nourishment. Baby Blood, as Prevenge does, even features a similar conversational rapport between the mother and what’s growing in her belly. But where Lowe’s movie excels is by replacing the extraordinary with the banal. The violence in Prevenge propels the story forward, but the primary conflict is about a woman whose identity is shifting from individual to mother.
The best antagonist to Lowe’s anti-hero is a saccharine gynecologist who serves as a mouthpiece for society’s one-dimensional adulation of pregnancy. She patronizes Ruth about the magical reality that, “You have absolutely no control over your mind and your body anymore,” and assures her that everything she’s going through is just part of nature’s ancient plan. In response to that, Lowe delivers not only the movie’s underlying thesis, but the frustration of every woman who’s ever been told how she ought to behave. “I think nature’s a bit of a cunt, though, don’t you?” It’s a line that Rosemary Woodhouse could never have gotten away with in 1968, and it speaks to the broader permission female genre filmmakers have taken by force — seen also in new movies like Raw and Bitch — to explore the unattractive, difficult realities of living as a woman. “This film is marketed on the fact that I’m a woman, and I’ve embraced it,” says Lowe. “I’ve gone, ‘Fuck it! If that’s the only way, I’ll make a film while I’m pregnant!’ I’ll take what I can get. But you hope at some point that you wouldn’t have to do that. You’re going, ‘I’m just going to make amazing films that other human beings want to see.’ And that’s what I want to do.”