“I’m not grieving, I’m gestating,” snaps our very pregnant protagonist in a climactic scene of Prevenge. She is grieving and gestating, it turns out, but she’s also on a killing spree, and these three facts all feed into one another in Alice Lowe’s directorial debut feature. Perversely prodding at all that we take for granted about pregnancy, Lowe has found a pitch-black, occasionally profound story about a woman’s loss of control over her body and mind, pulled between forces of life and death.
Prevenge finds apparently single mother-to-be Ruth (Lowe) already well underway on a mysterious hit list — first offing the pervy proprietor of a pet shop, then a pathetic pub DJ, with his elderly mom in the next room. The targets are assigned by Ruth’s unborn daughter, who prods her on in a baby-voice whisper that oscillates between pure camp and the edges of something truly skin-crawly; it sounds like Gollum in the womb. Between kills, Ruth talks back — Lowe addresses her bump with deadpan familiarity, like an old annoying friend that’s still trying to get into trouble with her. And she checks in every now and then with her prenatal nurse, whose saccharine bedside nature grows increasingly alienating, especially when she reassures Ruth “baby knows best.”
Along with some evocative camerawork by Ryan Eddleston, Lowe’s presence as an actor sells the ridiculousness of the premise. Some touches stretch believability, even within the film’s hallucinatory logic (Ruth’s baby-book hit list, where she scrawls childlike self-portraits of herself wielding a knife) and the dialogue is occasionally too self-aware, but Lowe perfectly inhabits the role of a woman who often seems like she can’t believe she’s in this movie. When she kills, you can see that sad, grounded part of her personality melt away in favor of something more primal, as if she herself has become a passenger in her own body. It’s subtle work, often quite funny, but also hitting nuanced notes of resignation and impulse that are rarely seen in horror heroines.
But Prevenge also seems reluctant to actually be a horror movie; its interests are more psychological than visceral. Despite some gruesome shots (including one unlucky victim whose reproductive faculties are compromised seconds before his throat is slit) Ruth’s murders seem deliberately untheatrical — they occur almost accidentally, with no dramatic stabs of music or flourishes of editing. The audience at my screening rarely uttered that familiar horror-audience laugh-moan. The deaths are too pathetic to warrant it, and that seems to be the point. The more pressing horror is the dynamic between Ruth and her fetus, and the ever-present dread of losing control.
It’s gradually revealed that the father of the baby has died, and the kill list is a sort of vengeance for his death. From there, the dramatic irony and moral hiccups that impede Ruth’s quest might seem predictable — the threat of the law is notably absent, but her conscience is dogging her plenty. Prevenge comes in the midst of what’s shaping up to be an exciting and fruitful female horror-auteur renaissance, and many of these films opt to emphasize internal anguish over exterior threats that don’t speak to the true anxiety of the story. What would a police chase or evidence-scrubbing sequence say that hasn’t been said before? The film’s graceful and simple conclusion is somehow more troubling given the crimes that Ruth has left in her wake, unanswered for.
Lowe, who was actually pregnant during production, also wrote the movie’s script, whose rough edges and gaps are filled in by her strong sense of tone and instinctual truth as a director. It makes one curious what subject matter she’ll tackle now as a mother, but Prevenge also suggests a wealth of possibility for pregnancy horror as a subgenre, decades after Rosemary’s Baby. Were we really going to let a male filmmaker have the last word on the implications of a little mystery person growing inside your own body? It seems it’s only just begun gestating.