Prevenge (2016)

Despite sounding like the subtitle of a gritty sequel to Minority ReportPrevenge is an old-fashioned tale of serial killing, with a twist; the killer is seven months pregnant, and spurred on by the ethereal voice of her unborn infant. Written by, starring and directed by the actually-considerably-pregnant Alice Lowe, the film plays with the classic homicidal revenge story by casting an ordinarily sympathetic kind of character as the killer, and by refraining from a standard of that kind of narrative: there is no clear inciting incident placed at the film’s beginning in order to get the audience onside for all of the rampant blood-letting. Rather the background information is filled in gradually, and then not made completely apparent, by means of ambiguous flashbacks and several narrators of questionable reliability. These choices of structure and characterisation combine to create a horror movie with a difference, one that challenges the viewers’ assumptions as much as it makes them laugh.

There are certain people or groups who are considered, rightly or wrongly, to be acceptable and unacceptable targets when it comes to works of fiction. If you need an army of irredeemable enemies to be gunned down by the hundreds while maintaining the lily-white goodness of your studly action hero, you summon a battalion of Nazis. Conversely, children tend to be covered by a mysterious layer of plot armour whenever danger rears its head. If any of these accepted rules are transgressed it is particularly shocking, and both audience and filmmaker will know that they’re stepping beyond the bounds of the expected. Thus, the decision to depict a pregnant woman as a murderer is knowingly provocative, because pregnancy is assumed to bestow a kind of motherly beneficence upon a woman (and because pregnancy is usually one of the indicators that a character will be immune from all harm in a story). This has two effects. In the first place, the notion that being with child precludes a woman from all of the normal spectrum of human behaviours is blown out of the water. While it is not incidental that the film’s protagonist/antagonist Ruth is heavily pregnant, there is really no good reason to assume that this fact alone would make her a morally superior person. Indeed, it is rather refreshing to see a female character who is not left as a mere spectator in a story simply because she is pregnant and thereby too frail or valuable to be allowed to partake in any action, in spite of the fact that, in this case, such action involves wanton slaughter.

Secondly, utilising the broader cultural view of the expectant mother allows the violence of the piece to become more pronounced in the mind of the audience. There is already a certain retrograde notion that women engaging in violence is scandalous. The fact that the number of notable female action heroes can be counted without running out of digits attests to this sad fact. But what makes Prevenge more daring than, for example, Kill Bill, is that Ruth is arguably operating at peak womanliness. Carrying a child is one of the few things that (excepting a small number of extraordinary cases involving trans-men) women can do that men cannot, and so being in this state throws her femininity into sharper focus. If it is accepted that female violence being shocking is the cultural norm, then pregnant female violence must be more shocking still.

These points lead to an important question about the film: is Prevenge a feminist horror movie? On balance, the answer is yes. The plot is female-driven, both by Ruth herself and by the foul-mouthed and cynical instruction of her female offspring. Ruth is the most dynamic character in the film, and the one with whom the audience is most drawn to empathise. Several of her victims, particularly early on, are chauvinistic men who, if their behaviour does not perhaps merit execution, gain little sympathy for their piggishness. Their attitudes certainly lead them to underestimate their assassin. The character Ruth, like the director Lowe, uses the assumptions of her audience to gain an advantage over them and achieve her goals. This assertion must be tempered, however, by certain other considerations. Ruth’s active role is mitigated somewhat by the fact that she is following orders for most of the run time. Whether these commands come from her demanding foetus or her own fractured psyche is immaterial, she is clearly not particularly in control of her own actions. In fact, she seems to be suffering a very literal form of hysteria; she is driven to homicidal excess not exactly by her own uterus, but possibly by the contents thereof. However, this does not seem to be a slight against womankind as much as an inevitable consequence of telling a story of grief and revenge, and of the choice to twist the trite truism of “baby knows best”.

The way in which the story is told is rather fractured, giving out hints of backstory as the plot unfolds. As previously stated, Ruth’s first few victims are fairly disgusting men, and one could be forgiven for thinking that her bloody crusade was merely a reaction against her treatment at the hands of such creatures. But the next victim is not in this mold. Her greatest crime seems to be her lack of a social life, and while she is admittedly a mite callous, she is not the obvious target that a creepy pet-shop owner or misogynistic DJ might be. Ultimately it is revealed that the father of Ruth’s child was killed on a climbing trip, and her victims were unlucky enough to survive. Like her pregnancy, her grief would tend to make her much more sympathetic, but it also has an opposite effect. Comparing once again to Kill Bill, the wholesale massacre of one’s wedding party and being left for dead (minus a baby) is a fairly good excuse for a “roaring rampage of revenge”; an admittedly hideous abseiling accident is less understandable. As the film reaches its conclusion, and while it is never made 100% clear what has spurred Ruth on, there is the very strong implication that perhaps our main character is a truly reprehensible monster, merely acting out the terrible repercussions of her own madness.

Prevenge is clearly not meant to be taken entirely seriously. The absurd premise and abundance of gallows humour are proof enough of this. But whatever the film lacks in seriousness it makes up for in effective scares, genuine hilarity, and an originality that energises what might elsewise have been a tired tale of a woman scorned. Like so many good horror films, there is ambiguity enough to satisfy the literal-minded and the fantasists, and a sufficient mix of pathos and comedy so that neither overwhelms. If nothing else, this is an entertaining worst-case-scenario of what to expect when you’re expecting.

 

Prevenge

Written and directed by Alice Lowe

Starring Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan and Kate Dickie

 

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