Indie Filmmaker Spotlight: Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge” (2016)
Only in daydreaming asides have I considered the “what if” of having a child: how they would turn out in looks, smarts, and personality. But I consistently pull back to reality: even if I did want a child, my salary puts me at a distinct disadvantage to care for one for 18+ years. (So maybe there is a bit of humanity underlying my motives here.)
This is why I’m perfectly happy with my two cats – they cost less, say less, are fluffy and adorable, and their neediness is flattering instead of annoying (okay, sometimes annoying).
But hey: a popular notion around the Internet meme-fire is that felines are as bent on destruction as the babies of It’s Alive or Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, so maybe it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other.
German Industrial band Wumpscut created one of my favorite songs about a birth as an existential conundrum: on the title track to 1997’s Embryodead, singer-songwriter Rudy Ratzinger assumes the role of a caustic-voiced, god-like figure stating to a (dead?) fetus, “you are condemned…don’t attempt to exist…in this world full of hate.” Harsh, noisy, and full of misanthropic vitriol, it’s a pummeling assault that heralds from an era that predated Wumpscut’s spiral into jokey self-parody. One of the album’s later songs, “Pest,” has Ratzinger’s voice distorted to an infant’s high pitch, as he claims, “I do exist…and you will be forced to live with me…for the rest of your miserable days.”
In a weird way, I wonder if Lowe was listening to Embryodead while conceiving the story of Prevenge.
After all, this tale of pregnant Ruth (Lowe) embarking on a methodical vengeance spree has the same existential twist: she is compelled by the “voice” of her unborn child to take out the people it deems responsible for its father’s tragic death.
As an actress, Lowe won me over with her sad-sack turn in Ben Wheatley’s ingenious dark comedy, Sightseers. In Prevenge, she’s more assertive, but in some ways just as codependent – instead of a road trip with a serial-killer suitor, it’s a murder-minded fetus whose commands may be a figment of her imagination.
Following the classic structure of infamous female-empowerment revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45, Prevenge is no naïve, blind stab at exploitation or shock-value gore (though it does have its moments). Functioning as a corollary to Wheatley’s Kill List and John Waters’ Serial Mom, Ruth’s rampage is informed by a twisted logic that complements the rollercoaster of emotional and hormonal shifts her character experiences (there are some wonderfully candid scenes between her and a midwife (Jo Hartley). These skillful fluctuations in tone are part of the film’s allure, and provide a sense of unpredictability throughout.
Lowe has an undeniably distinctive presence – in depicting characters who are shunted to the periphery for one reason or another, she essays them with authority and strength. Ruth is not a woman to be ignored or taken lightly, and those who do inevitably suffer the consequences (often in ironic, darkly comedic fashion).
Prevenge is confident in plot, performance, and aesthetic without giving off the annoying, HEY-LOOK-AT-ME auteurist signals that higher-profile actors-turned-filmmakers often evoke. Lowe’s stylistic flourishes run the gamut from subtle (her first quarry is a pet-shop owner, who dies in front of a display of cold-blooded reptiles) to overt (the absurd-to-terrifying “death’s head” makeup she dons for a climactic Halloween party), but always complement the story and characterization at large (another potential victim wears a homemade Spider-Man outfit for said Halloween party).
What lends the film some of its visceral and narrative shock is the unassuming nature of Lowe the actress: that she doesn’t play Ruth for camp lets the humor and horror resonate with a potency that often caught me off guard. The villains are not necessarily one-note types, but still bring a sense of sleaze and chauvinism to the proceedings. However, when we see that a fuck-minded disco DJ lives with his invalid mother (who he verbally berates), Prevenge brings an additional wrinkle to the cliches that accompany most revenge tales, transcending easy cynicism to align itself – ferociously, at times – with the purely maternal.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Prevenge is currently streaming on Shudder.