Having come over all judgmental on Lena Dunham last time, I find myself reviewing another film written, directed by and starring the same woman. But whereas Dunham has a tendency to take herself way too seriously, Alice Lowes film has its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek, making it far more enjoyable. Of course the horror genre already includes some great films with pregnancy at their core, Polanskis ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ being arguably the best. But so far ‘Prevenge’ is the only one written by a woman who also stars in the film whilst seven months pregnant with her own child. And for that alone I think she deserves a high five.
A slightly frumpy, heavily pregnant woman walks into a reptile shop and asks the man behind the counter for advice on buying an exotic pet for her eight year old son. The man is obliging and, whilst cracking out his full repertoire of inappropriately sexual asides which the woman seems faintly unnerved by, gives her a tour of the creepy crawlies. She asks to see something more specialist, her son is an ambitious naturalist, and is ushered into the back room to see the ‘private collection’. But as the man leans in and whispers seductively about a large and deadly female spider, the woman produces an enormous kitchen knife and slices clean through his carotid artery. And this is how we meet Ruth, a woman in the midst of a murderous rampage, intent on ending the lives of the seven people responsible for the death of her husband. A simple premise perhaps, only this time Ruth is acting at the behest of her psychotic unborn child.
The opening scene perfectly sums up why this film is so interesting. It challenges perceptions of pregnant women as earthy, homebound creatures, full to the brim with goodness. It challenges our need to coddle them and police them with collective intakes of breath if they are seen within ten paces of a bottle of wine or if they aren’t safely tucked up in bed before 11pm. Ruth is the antithesis of well behaved vessel, she’s ‘gestating fucking rage!’ She might be in her third trimester but she’s quite capable of castrating a large drunk man, twice her size, and then putting his senile mother back to bed with a goodnight kiss or climbing out of a cat flap to escape the police after plunging a kitchen knife into a woman who attempted to fight her off wearing boxing gloves. The fact that people assume she’s so harmless works to her advantage. She can be the perfect serial killer, hiding in plain sight.
More interesting than the idea of being forced to do something by a murderous fetus is the more nebulous, and yet mundane, idea of giving yourself up to another presence inside your own body. It’s a subject that is visited several times in some hilariously wry conversations between Ruth and her midwife, played by Jo Hartley.
“You have to kind of hand yourself over, like some kind of human sacrifice, to their will.”
These conversations are the best bits of the film. There is a delicious irony at some of the platitudes Ruth has to endure, so often dished out to expectant mothers, like ‘Baby knows best, baby knows what to do’. And this is where Alice Lowes deadpan delivery is showcased to its funniest effect.
It is a very funny film. Lowe is a regular fixture in the world of British comedy (her CV includes appearances in The Mighty Boosh, Garth Merenghis Darkplace, Black Books and The I.T. Crowd) but you would be forgiven for not recognizing her. So far she’s hung back from the limelight and it wasn’t until the 2012 film Sightseers that she took a leading role. This film really shows off her full compliment of talents. Her writing is never labored, the plot is simple but constantly surprising and she’s a natural at deadpan humor. All the characters are rich, quirky and perfect fodder for Ruths apathetic sarcasm.
I did initially feel disappointed by how the film ended since (spoiler) Ruth gives birth to a normal, healthy baby girl who does not seem to harbor any murderous urges. But thinking about it, I don’t think it could have ended any other way. And it does bring it back from the world of fantasy to a much darker realization that Ruth herself is the monster and she being driven by very human emotions to commit her crimes. And yet we still sympathise with her, which is the challenge Lowe knowingly presents to us.
I do have two criticisms. Firstly, it looks low budget and not in a cool, DIY way. I can’t quite put my finger on why it doesn’t work for this film when so many other indie films have made low budgets work to their advantage. It just looks a bit amateurish, as though the budget has been stretched too far to include too many locations. The second would be that we hear Ruths baby instructing her in a sickly sweet voice that feels too on the nose, too obvious, which consequently makes the child less interesting. I feel the film would be better if the child’s dialogue wasn’t audible and we just heard Ruths side of the conversations or if it had been done with subtitles. I think that would make the exchanges between mother and child more intriguing without loosing any of the humor of them. But nevertheless, neither of these things really hampered my enjoyment of the film.
The acclaimed author Maggie Nelson writes ‘babies grow in a helix of hope and fear; gestating draws one but deeper into the spiral. It isn’t cruel in there, but it’s dark.’ ‘Prevenge’ touches upon the darker side of pregnancy and motherhood but never lets its audience get weighed down by it. It probably isn’t going to make any great contributions to philosophical discussions around pregnancy but it does make you question what you think you know and makes you laugh heartily at the same time.
The film ticks all the Bechdel test boxes and with it’s array of brilliant female characters also gets a big fat gold star.