Alice Lowe’s Prevenge is the latest in a recent line of horror movies about women attempting to navigate the difficult paths of motherhood and loss. Films like The Descent and The Babadook explored the emotional terror of trying to hold oneself together in the midst of agonizing grief. Prevenge seems to pay homage to these films – along with a heavy dose of Rosemary’s Baby, for good measure – but adds in a big helping of glib humor that doesn’t always land, but always keeps the film interesting.
The story involves Ruth (Lowe), a single woman seven months pregnant. As we are first introduced to her, she seems normal enough; maybe a bit sad and withdrawn, but nothing too out of the ordinary. It’s not long, however, before she pulls out a sharp knife and murders somebody. Then somebody else. And somebody else.
Obviously, Ruth isn’t quite as normal as she first appears. Not only is she committing acts of violence, but she appears to be acting under orders from her unborn child, whose playful voice she hears in her head, spouting misanthropic philosophy as she demands more blood and death. It is all very ridiculous, but apparently not random. There is a pattern to Ruth’s killing that at first seems to be connected to the palpable awfulness of her victims. But as the murders continue, we sense there is something deeper going on; something more heartbreaking.
So much of Prevenge requires that the audience be genuinely curious about the larger mystery of Ruth’s motives. This means being invested in Ruth herself, as she slashes her way through her victims, all the while seeming conflicted about her actions. Were the film a little worse, it’s feasible that Ruth’s conflict would seem like an afterthought, tacked on to a shallow and exploitative film in an attempt to lend it some depth. Thankfully, Lowe – who writes, directs, and stars – has such a firm handle on who Ruth is and why she’s doing what she’s doing that her inner strife becomes the primary point of interest instead of a shoehorned-in subplot. In fact, though officially a horror film, Prevenge at times feels more like a sort of murder mystery, but with the primary question being why instead of who?
Not only is a lot of the drama rooted in Ruth’s inner turmoil, but much of the comedy, as well. While it can be very engaging to see a seemingly-normal person suddenly become a murderer, Lowe also understands the obvious absurdity that can come from being a fledgling killer. In one scene, Ruth poses as a charity worker in order to gain entry into the house of a strong, independent young woman. She attempts to kill the young woman – unsuccessfully – who then disappears deeper into her house, eventually emerging with boxing gloves and a determined look on her face. The two go on to have a surprisingly casual conversation about the increasing aggressiveness of charity workers before the violence continues. This is clearly not the interaction of a cold-blooded killer and her prey, but of two people trying to figure out exactly how to proceed in an encounter that often seems more awkward than dangerous.
Moments like this definitely push Prevenge into the “horror comedy” category, but I’ll be honest when I say that I was never particularly frightened during the film; nor was I really disgusted. The film does contain some disturbing imagery, and doesn’t let the silly moments undercut the more dramatic elements of the film, but it never quite lives up to the potential of its premise. While many of the films I mentioned explore pregnancy and motherhood in a way that is both heart wrenching and disturbing – with the “pregnancy as body horror” concept fully exploited – Prevenge treats these as more of a narrative hook that are only occasionally used to their full potential.
Of course, there is still a great deal of originality in Prevenge, but I kept waiting for it to take that extra step, be it dramatically, comedically, or violently. I felt as though the film were holding back and never going quite as far as its inspired premise would demand. What could have been audacious ultimately ends up being merely clever. And while there is a shortage of clever horror movies out there, there’s an absolute dearth of films that have the audacity to explore every nook and cranny of their premise. So, as original and enjoyable as Prevenge is, it seldom operates at the level that it could be, or should be.