Prevenge: Revenge of the disenfranchised

Katerina Sakkas

Early on in Prevenge (2016), a nervous Ruth (Alice Lowe), the heavily pregnant central character, is escorted through a reptile shop by its sleazy proprietor, who’s clearly relishing her discomfort. They stop at a glass case containing a pregnant arachnid, which the owner insists on digging out to place in Ruth’s hands. “Is she dangerous?” she asks in a flat, tense voice. “Yes,” he replies, unaware of the fatal significance his words will assume a moment later, as Ruth embarks on a murderous vendetta at the urging of her unborn child.

English actor and screenwriter Alice Lowe was seven months pregnant during the shooting of her debut feature, a black horror-comedy about the roiling emotions of pregnancy, overlaid by themes of grief and social injustice. Like The Love Witch, Anna Biller’s flamboyant 2016 satire on feminine romantic ideals as filtered through a 70s B-movie lens, Prevenge takes a womanly archetype — the serene and radiant expectant mother — and transforms it into something calculating and dangerous. As Ruth systematically works her way through victims, each of her midwife’s (Jo Hartley) platitudes take on a lethal edge: “You have absolutely no control over your mind or body now.” Ruth comments it’s like a hostile takeover.

In a recurring visual motif, Prevenge references a snippet from the 1934 American thriller Crime Without Passion, where three Furies are shown swooping down to punish earthly moral transgressions, arms outstretched, long robes streaming, each livid face a rictus of laughter. Catching the film on TV, Ruth aligns herself with these beings, not only for the sake of entertaining passages where she campily imitates their Expressionistic gestures, but in the deeper, moral sense, of “the three sisters who lie in wait for those who live dangerously and without Gods,” as the 1934 film puts it. Ruth is driven to avenge her partner’s death, but with each slaughter she also makes a gruesome commentary on various social ills. There’s the sexually harassing pet shop owner, grotesquely selfish “weekend warrior,” “DJ Dan,” and the corporate manager smugly doling out austerity. These are people who screw others over. “I’m Fury,” says the unborn child.

Alice Lowe, Prevenge

The encounters with her victims function to some extent as seductions, with Ruth acting a part designed to draw out her target’s most loathsome self before the blade does its swift, inevitable work. With predominantly medium close-ups bringing us into a space of intimate awkwardness, each episode is a minutely observed satire of human awfulness. The dialogue in these scenes is full of deadpan irony, precisely timed so that the sordidness hangs in the pauses.

Like Ben Wheatley’s horror-comedy Sightseers (2012), about caravanning serial killers, co-written by and co-starring Lowe, Prevenge showcases the revenge of the socially disenfranchised, to which Lowe adds a layer of feminist anger. “I’m not grieving; I’m gestating…fucking rage.” Lowe is clearly adept at creating that rare entity: the horror film whose humour is inextricably tied to its bleakness.

Toydrum’s synth soundtrack, recalling classic 70s horror and Giallo cinema, heightens Prevenge’s hallucinogenic subjectivity as it shifts from flashback to kill scene to private moments of crisis. Without being self-indulgent, this is a deeply personal film, both for protagonist and director. From a horror filmmaker riffing on her own experience with great immediacy, something vivid and unpredictable is born.

Sydney Underground Film Festival, Prevenge, 2016, writer, director Alice Lowe, performers Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Tom Davis, Kate Dickie, cinematographer Ryan Eddleston, score Toydrum (Pablo Clements, James Griffith), editor Matteo Bini, production design Blair Barnette, Factory Theatre, Sydney, 15, 16 Sept

Top image credit: Alice Lowe, Prevenge

13 September 2017