Director: Alice Lowe
Stars: Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak
There’s an excruciating disaster of a character in Alice Lowe’s Prevenge named Dan played by Tom Davis. He’s a portly pub DJ in a small town who lives in a sad flat with his poor ailing mother. He’s the kind of aging lad’s lad who would describe a woman he finds attractive as ‘fit’ or as ‘totty’, clings to his own self-deceit that his meager halcyon days never ended, desperately living the fantasy that he’s still in his early twenties despite time aggressively advising otherwise. It’s a grotesque miracle of a character. When I saw Davis, I saw the mentality of the coastal hole I grew up in embodied in one terrible man. He’s a collection of truisms as on-point as an Alan Partridge or a David Brent, and he’s only a guest in this jet-black comedy horror film that’s cruising the UK for new victims.
Fans of homegrown cult cinema here in the UK will probably best know Alice Lowe for her tremendous work in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers back at the tail end of 2012, though she’s remained very active and interesting in the intervening time (the under-seen Black Mountain Poets, for example). Here she takes control behind the camera for her feature debut, and it’s a bold and steely one at that.
Lowe plays heavily pregnant mother-to-be Ruth who is on something of a tour of Britain, identifying a number of specific individuals and targeting them for grizzly death. Her rage seems fueled internally by the pregnancy, and the foetus even speaks to Ruth in a high-pitched sing-song voice, directing her actions. Early on in the picture it seems as though Ruth has already decided that her path has been chosen for her; that she has no say in the matter. Baby knows what baby wants.
All of which sounds in-keeping with the sensibility seen in the aforementioned Sightseers, and even the concept seems kindred; a disarming inversion of the serial killer movie by way of quaint, inherently British observations, injected with enough humour to make it all palatable. Sightseers remains Wheatley’s breeziest film after all.
In truth, Prevenge plays itself with a less conspicuously easy smirk. It is hilarious, and frequently so, but Lowe is more interested in the grey areas where the audience is left to question whether they ought to be laughing at all. In terms of tone, it recalls the grim darkness of Julia Davis’ bleak sitcom Nighty Night. In practice it feels like a sketch from Chris Morris’ Jam which has wilfully wandered out of the confines of the television set to go knifing people around the country. An elaboration in which laughter goes hand-in-hand with unease at every step.
The metaphor is plain and enjoyable, as it’s something so rarely given credence on screen. Pregnancy is a transformative event; for a temporary period of time your body is wholly changed, your mental state too. The body is hijacked. Male auteurs like David Cronenberg and David Lynch – both preoccupied with the psychological fallout of change – have given us essays on the fears of parenthood, Lowe explores the feminine angle without pulling any punches. She places Ruth in a series of situations in which society doesn’t allow the pregnant woman access. A job interview. A room viewing at a houseshare. An activities training centre. Lowe reminds us that while a pregnant woman is usually held as a totem of success in society, that success comes with a set of rules and limitations. A different set of values are placed on a pregnant woman without a partner. Suddenly failure is assumed. The totem falls down.
Prevenge invites an audience of both comedy and horror fans and isn’t about to let either feel as though they didn’t get their money’s worth. Ruth has shades of Tina from Sightseers and the giggles that Lowe procures are often derived from her askew outlook or from crafting a situation that is purely bizarre, but the gore hounds will be sated also. Prevenge shocks when it pushes a shade further than you expect it to, particularly in a brief but indelible flashback which helps to explain what led to this extreme outbreak of violence.
As a director Lowe is very giving to her cast. I mentioned Tom Davis at the head of this review to cite the dimension and scrutiny given to even the more minor characters Ruth comes into contact with. Day-players dot Prevenge, but everyone feels considered, from Kate Dickie’s depressed businesswoman to Jo Hartley’s concerned midwife. The film opens and sets up the terms of what is to follow in a reptilian pet store, and Dan Renton Skinner’s lecherous shopkeeper could fill a gaudy six-part series by himself. The generosity pays dividends. In spite of a somewhat repetitive structure, Prevenge never lets up its stranglehold on your attention, because there’s always someone interesting on screen and the concept is never less than provocative
Lowe unsettles the viewer with framing also. Especially at the start – and particularly in that reptilian hothouse of an opener – her players are crammed into close-ups. The viewer feels a shade uncomfortable at how near the action is. It’s claustrophobic. Lowe wants us to feel as ‘off’ as Ruth does, and plays it well. Some scenes wander freely in and out of focus deliberately. There’s a looseness to Prevenge that pulsates and skips us through this delirious 90 minute ride. The film’s final seconds feel a little have-your-cake-and-eat-it, but in the main this is a delightfully dark and disturbing knee to the balls of bland filmmaking; a scrappy little feature that will fly under the radar for lamentably obvious reasons, but which sets Lowe up as a director to watch as much as Wheatley before her.