❉ Alice Lowe’s vicious, vicarious, visceral comedy horror. Mild spoilers.
Alice Lowe has done it again. Actor and filmmaker Lowe will be a familiar name for fans of modern British cult cinema, as co-writer and co-star of 2012’s outstanding, violent dark comedy Sightseers, directed by hipster auteur Ben Wheatley (Doctor Who, A Field In England, Kill List, High-Rise, Free Fire).
With Prevenge, arriving on DVD and Blu-ray after its much feted, award-winning cinematic release last year, the talented Ms Lowe scores a triple whammy, as the film’s lead actor and sole writer and director. No mean feat considering Lowe was seven months pregnant during the making of Prevenge, in which she plays a single woman in the latter stages of pregnancy, taunted and driven by the malevolent inner voice of her unborn foetus to systematically execute the members of her late partner’s climbing team, who left him for dead during an expedition in West Wales, as tokenistic revenge for an uncaring society that has left her alone, with no love and no hope for the future.
As premises for serial killer slashers go, it’s a unique one, but with one hand in the same ‘horror of the mundane’ as Sightseers’ bracing mix of Nuts In May scenery and Natural Born Killers bloodlust, and Wheatley’s later Kill List, with which it shares visceral set pieces as notable for their cinematic blood-letting as the utterly quotidian settings in which they occur, and another in the transgressively feminist tradition of the horror subgenres of ‘avenging angels’ and ‘the monstrous feminine’ as Abel Ferrara’s similarly stylish and dreamlike Ms. 45 or the classic I Spit On Your Grave, with a few neat nods in the direction of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, Polanski’s Repulsion and Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. All of this taking place in the neon-lit nighttime boulevards and leafy terraced streets of Cardiff, driven by Lowe’s frumpy yet whipsmart-sarcastic antiheroine Ruth and set against a queasy electronica score by Toydrum that lodges itself into your subconsciousness.
In our society, incipient motherhood is frequently placed upon a pedestal as a kind of sainthood, the feminine ideal – it’s safe to say that Prevenge kicks that pedestal to the ground in taboo-breaking form. In the narrative of the film, it appears that Ruth’s murderous urges are being vehemently instigated by the malevolent inner voice of her unborn child, but it becomes obvious over time that Ruth is in the grips of a kind of prepartum psychosis.
This is bold new territory, especially for a film that wears its humour on its sleeve. As with Sightseers’ reign of chaotic terror, there is something simultaneously bracing, hilarious and terrifying as we follow our protagonist as she embarks on her killing spree: In Sightseers, the vicarious ‘Am I supposed to be enjoying this?’ thrill was in seeing mousy Tina, downtrodden for so long by her controlling mother, find an amoral kind of liberation in the act of capricious murders, laughing hysterically yet instinctively recoiling at the increasingly stylised and farcical Tarantino-meets-Python methods of dispatch, while wishing there was a less destructive way where she should could find self-actualisation, up to and including the point where a line is crossed for any allowances for the abberant psychology behind their behaviour.
The effect in Prevenge is the same only more: Ruth is a much more smart and witty woman than naïve, guileless and impressionable Tina, donning a series of disguises with which to confront each of her chosen victim; from glammed-up tarty frump seducing the pathetic yet likeable loser ‘DJ Dan’ (Tom Davis) in the most humorous segment of the film which also showcases her humanity, putting DJ Dan’s senile mother to bed after brutally emasculating the fella, to the shambolic Bristolian-accented charity-botherer staging a hilariously inept home invasion in the front room of humourless fitness fanatic Len (Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan) and – in what for me remains the key scene I will return to again and again – as a coldly efficient interviewee, all tight suit, slicked back hair, pansticked face and razorblade lips, seeking an audience with stern, joyless exec Ella (Kate Dickie, so good in The Witch) which becomes a wonderfully tense and viciously funny exercise in table-turning that shows Ruth at her most manipulative, coldly yet viciously assassinating Ella’s character with scalpel-like precision before… Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the scene ends with a quick yet brutal finishing-off, compounded with a Don’t Look Now homage and some cold quips from Ruth. It’s glorious, and suggests Lowe has responded well to the example set by her former director Wheatley in terms of how to frame, shoot and compose scenes that begin in talk and end in violence, and even though Ruth’s modus operandi is chilling, methodical and sociopathic, like all good serial killer films it’s hard not to get carried away with the anti-heroine finding her new calling as an angel of death. To a point.
There comes a point in all horrors where there’s a visceral, vicarious thrill in being (pace Auden) “Filthy, with the filthy too” but after a spell, the viewer recoils, sympathetically, “Please, stop, no more, you can save yourself… and the others.”
As already noted, although this is very much Ruth’s story, a single person narrative, there is strong support from an excellent cast – Davis, Whelan and Dickie are just perfect in their vignettes – but of all the cast, praise in particular must go to Jo Hartley as Ruth’s midwife. In between her assignments, Ruth checks in with her nominated midwife following the progress of her foetus, and it’s these scenes that offer the grace notes between each set piece when Ruth plays avenging angel. Effectively written and masterfully played out between Lowe and Hartley, we first encounter the midwife as something of a buffoon, condescendingly offering the usual platitudes about motherhood, bluntly rebuffed by Ruth (Sample dialogue – Midwife: “It’s just nature’s way”. Ruth: “Well, nature’s a bit of a cunt, then, isn’t she?”) but over time, unaware of Ruth’s nocturnal activities, it becomes clear that the midwife has Ruth’s best interests at heart, is her sole confidante in the real world, and even when Ruth voices doubts without expanding on her behaviour, the midwife’s understanding, non-judgmental nature offers a way to salvation for the fecund nihilist, between murder and motherhood. As to whether Ruth earns that salvation or not, you will have to watch Prevenge to the very end to find out, but regardless of the outcome, Prevenge is a twisted, macabre, Sahara-dry, jet-black comedy with moments of high farce (One word: Catflap – you’ll get it when you see it), Grand Guignol, deadpan humour and insights into the human condition at its most emotionally jumbled and messed-up, and for this reviewer, it’s also striking to see my twin stomping grounds of Pembrokeshire and Cardiff look so alien and atmospheric.
❉ ‘Prevenge’ was released on DVD, Blu-ray and VoD on 5 June 2017 by Kaleidscope Home Entertainment. The discs come with the following extras: Audio commentary (Alice Lowe, cinematographer Ryan Eddleston, editor Matteo Bini and producer Vaughan Sivell) and a behind the scenes featurette ‘Post Natal Confessions’.
❉ The soundtrack by Toydrum is available now: https://invada.bandcamp.com/album/prevenge-original-soundtrack