As workers in one of many under-unionised industries in the western world, there is no such thing as maternity leave for screenwriters and actors. Time spent not working during a pregnancy is time spent out of the spotlight and out of pocket. Unless, like Alice Lowe, you decide to use your third trimester to write, direct and star in a film about a homicidal foetus that orders its mother to kill people from inside the womb.
Lowe plays Ruth, a heavily pregnant woman whose husband has died in a mountaineering accident, in which the other climbers had to cut him loose to save themselves. Ruth’s unborn child begins speaking to her, and spurs her on to a series of exquisitely violent revenge killings against the members of the climbing group. Prevenge is the second feature film written by Lowe, who also co-authored Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, a black comedy charting a couple’s foray into serial killing on a caravan holiday. The two films share a blend of the extremely mundane with the extremely grisly; throat slitting accompanied by small talk. This is the root of Lowe’s comedy, and it’s mostly very successful. Surveying a carpet thick with the blood of one of her victims, Ruth notes blandly that it will “need a bit of bleach”.
The first acts of the film seem very easy to read: homely-looking pregnant woman turns out not to be an angel in the house but an angel of death driven on by her baby (who speaks with a girl’s voice), taking revenge not just for her husband’s demise but for all of womankind robbed of their happiness. Her first two victims are men and are both cut and dried sexists. Ruth begins with a leery pet shop owner who asks her if she wants to touch his “big fat snake”, followed by a repellent pub DJ and would-be lothario whose testicles she lops off. But by the time we come to victim number three, Lowe complicates the narrative: this time it’s a careerist businesswoman. Ruth’s baby, whose high-pitched, sing-song voice we hear throughout the film, tells her that some of the world’s evil people are women: “Oh yes, we can be the worst, the coldest, the most merciless”. This victim refuses to take Ruth’s application for a job seriously due to her pregnancy, and advises her to get this motherhood thing “out of her system”. Instead, Ruth smashes her head into her boardroom table. So as well as misogynistic men, the film takes a swipe at the women who perpetuate sexist attitudes in society. However, as the film goes on, her victims are less and less objectionable people, and Ruth begins trying to resist the baby’s orders. Narratively this is a good move; as the baby becomes stronger and the birth date nears, Ruth’s killings are more tenuously justifiable; is she in fact a kind of feminist vigilante or is she a homicidal monster?
In addition to the central flipping of expectations by portraying a pregnant woman as a figure of power rather than vulnerability, the film is peppered with neat subversions of familiar pregnancy and childbirth tropes. Ruth fills a kitschy baby book with maniacal artwork depicting her murders, coaches one of her dying victims in Lamaze breathing techniques and nods knowingly as her prenatal nurse reassures her that “baby will tell you what to do”. It takes the patronising idea that pregnant women are hormonal tornados prone to unexplained behaviour to its logical extreme. As Ruth advances on her with a kitchen knife, one of her victims screams “you’re insane”, to which she replies “I am a working mother, it is not easy meeting your kids’ demands these days”. And of course, a pregnancy horror makes a kind of biological sense: the series of knifing bloodbaths are mirrored by Ruth’s graphic caesarean birth towards the film’s close. There’s also some very satisfying visual symbolism linking the severed climbing rope that killed her husband with the umbilical cord that keeps her murderous child alive.
It’s a fun film, undoubtedly, but what makes it also a necessary film is the visibility it gives to the challenges faced by women in the film industry who want to start a family. Lowe has spoken about the anxieties she faced when she found out that she was pregnant, and would therefore have to take time out of acting. Her solution was to bash out a script that included her pregnancy and could be shot over only 11 days due to being made up mostly of two handers, and even built in an editing schedule that allowed her to have her baby in the suite with her. In Lowe’s particular case, it’s a great example of making lemonade out of lemons, but this obviously won’t do as a model for every woman filmmaker having children. One hopes Lowe’s film will push this imbalance in the industry into the public eye. It is not as if the way the film industry is currently organized is some immutable law of the universe; childbearing people can and should be accommodated to keep working in their field.
On this basis, Prevenge would have worth even if it weren’t a good film, but fortunately it’s also very watchable. Horror comedy is a difficult genre. Sightseers is one of a handful of films that strike the right tonal balance, and I’m not wholly convinced that Lowe has pulled it off with the same success here. Perhaps because the ticking clock on Lowe’s pregnancy meant the production had to be speedy, the story itself feels hurried in places. But Prevenge feels decidedly original. Although it is primarily a gory horror film, it also touches on the struggles faced by expecting mothers and the nature of traumatic loss: after the child is born, Ruth realises that the killings were not the will of the baby, but a product of her raging grief at losing her husband. This aspect particularly makes the film a much more ambitious project than the average slasher, and although it could have used a little longer to gestate, Prevenge is sufficiently inventive that you can forgive it being a little slapdash.