PREVENGE (Dir- Alice Lowe, UK, 2016)
Starring- Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kate Dickie, Kayvan Novak, Tom Davis
After a screening at London Film Festival, Alice Lowe’s directorial début is the first film to kick off a pre-Halloween weekend small season of horror films at Manchester’s HOME cinema, which includes many interesting titles already screened from the LIFF line up, with RAW, WE ARE THE FLESH and the new 4K restoration of PHANTASM. It’s great to see this season on in what is essentially an art-house cinema, albeit an impressive one and as its an inaugural event here’s hoping it continues the following year after this as with so many horror films being released at the moment and the majority only making their way to Blu Ray, DVD or VOD releases this gives a good chance to catch something that wont necessarily make it onto the cinema. That said the opening film is the directorial debut of actress Alice Lowe and a fantastically dark, funny and often pitch black serial killer movie and maybe the first film where the killer in question is pregnant.
Lowe plays Ruth a heavily pregnant women who is recently bereaved after the father of her unborn child died in a climbing accident. Ruth wants to take revenge on those responsible and in many ways on society in general that pitches its condescending attitude towards pregnant women. She encounters various sleazy male characters along the way including a pet shop owner who has a really crass array of flirtation that just border on the worse kind of double-entendre and a 70’s disco DJ who throws up in his afro wig and still lives with his elderly mum. Some of these people are nasty and sleazy and in some respects don’t gain our sympathy for being rid of. Though Ruth does end up taking the lives of some who don’t seem to deserve it. The only thing that sets Ruth apart or has her believing that what she is doing is right is the fact that she believes her unborn child is telling her to kill. Is Ruth just suffering from paranoid delusion and a fractured mind, or is it the fear of responsibility and neglect she feels in having to bring a child into this world on her own that has set her off?
What struck me most about PREVENGE is the treatment of its main character. Pregnant women in films always seem to be the ones who are the weakest, always having to be looked after and sometimes in danger of having their water break and the first labour pains to happen at an inconvenient moment. Ruth on the other hand is the opposite and is the strongest character in the film though for reasons that are entirely wrong. For one thing she’s a character that is conflicting in that she is both unsympathetic, yet strangely by the end of the film you end up feeling a certain slight tinge of sympathy for her and her quest for vengeance on what she sees as a hypocritical society. In many respects she is an anti hero, a Travis Bickle type character, yet rather than her targets being drug dealers and “scum of the earth” Ruth sets her sights on those she feels are repellent, have no idea of what its like to lose someone or bear the responsibility of bringing a life into this world. Its a potent mind set that drives her character to believe that her unborn child is giving her instructions to kill.
But this is a manifestation of the rage she feels at society and some of the condescending attitude towards pregnant women, most notably in the form of a midwife (Jo Hartley) who almost delivers her talks to Ruth in a child like calmed manner as if she is trained to project her voice in that way. Most of the scenes involving Ruth and the midwife are superbly written, such as when the health official on finding out that Ruth’s husband is dead, states that its natures way, to which Ruth sarcastically replies “Well nature’s a bit of a cunt.” Another exchange that is perfectly captured between the two is when the Midwife mentions social services, which understandably sends Ruth off in a near panic attack instantly making her think that her child will be taken away, realistically showing whenever social services is mentioned it can send any parent or expectant mother into a panic.
The central performances from these two actresses are some of the best in the film. Particular praise should go to Lowe, who in true guerilla style film-making method was 6 months pregnant whilst making the film. Her character of Ruth is repellent in her actions, yet anchors the film and keeps us fixed witnessing her killing spree whilst her actions as a pregnant single mother is a complete subversion of what we idealise the expectant female to be. Film wise this reminded me strangely enough of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s WHO CAN KILL A CHILD from 1976, where the kids are the murderers in that film and the main female character featured is also an expectant mother. Though tonally this reminds me of Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK, which used the horror film template to focus on maternal anxiety’s. However this film takes a more darker edge to its story and its this that might put some people off from relating to the film’s central character and some may find her killing spree somehow a bit unbelievable in that there seems to be a distance from a real world setting, despite its English surroundings, that Ruth would be caught pretty quickly by the authority’s, especially with some of the areas where she commits her murders.
Like her co-star in the fantastic Ben Wheatley directed SIGHTSEERS, Steve Oram who directed AAAAAAH!, released last year, Lowe has confidently jumped from in front of the screen to behind the screen (well also still starring in the film so technically still in front of the screen) and has crafted a neat, often very funny, but in many ways bleak psycho thriller of brooding maternal fear that embraces an alternative look at established roles of motherhood and pregnancy in its own violent manner and its great to see the British genre scene producing surprising and original, often transgressive work.