Pregnancy has been a vital plot element in horror cinema for decades—at least going back to Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned in 1960—but there are precious few horror films that are specifically concerned with the anxieties that attend the nine months of human gestation. The ur-text for this rare species of picture is inarguably Rosemary’s Baby, which rather ingeniously mingles two nominally contradictory fears. On one hand is Rosemary's anxiety that motherhood will mutate her formerly vibrant life into one of drudgery and insipidness. On the other is her uneasiness about her child’s well-being, which she comes to jealously regard as her exclusive purview, the doting of Satanic cultists notwithstanding.
Other horror features have occasionally exploited adjacent emotional territory with mixed results, although a few relatively recent films such as Inside and Proxy have discovered novel and harrowing natal angles to explore. What most decisively distinguishes Alice Lowe’s new entry in this narrow subgenre is that, like Roman Polanski’s demonic 1968 thriller, the deliciously-titled Prevenge is the rare film that addresses the experience of pregnancy with genuine depth and shrewdness. Indeed, it might be the first horror feature to explicitly tackle gestation as a psychological, emotional, and hormonal phenomenon. The director’s gender is not incidental to this, for while A-list male filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott have burrowed into the body horror potential of reproduction, Lowe comprehends that the mental mutations unleashed by pregnancy are just as fucked up.
Prevenge’s fascinating anti-heroine is Ruth (Rowe), a Welsh woman who is in the third trimester with her first child, a girl. Ruth is also a recent widow, her husband Matt (Marc Bessant) having perished in a gruesome rock climbing accident shortly after she learned of her pregnancy. This tragedy has left Ruth in an understandable morass of grief and rage; reluctant to carry on with her life and ambivalent about bringing a child into the world, even if that baby is the last physical remnant of her late husband.
Whatever resolve Ruth has retained is devoted entirely to cold-blooded murder. The film’s opening scene follows her as she talks her way into the back room of an exotic pet store and then slits the throat of shop’s manager with a handy boning knife. The film coyly and rather needlessly withholds the full story behind Ruth’s kill list until the final stretch, but as the title clearly signals, her murderous spree is not some random, deranged act of bloodletting. Ruth has a plan; her intended targets are inscribed in a notebook and embellished with the angry doodles of a goth teen’s poetry journal.
This might have been the stuff of a faux-feminist vigilante thriller (Mommy’s Death Wish?) but Prevenge’s maybe-supernatural hook is what elevates the film into sharply-observed psychological horror. It turns out that Ruth’s unborn child is goading her into the murders, and while the baby girl-to-be doesn’t seem to be outright directing or masterminding its mother’s crimes, it is playing the part of the devil on her shoulder (or in her womb, in this case). Plot-wise, Prevenge resembles any number of dubiously righteous R-rated revenge stories, but the relentless telepathic encouragement from the baby is the irresistible perversity that powers the film.
Rowe herself voices the fetus, delivering her lines in a squeaky, breathy coo that renders its misanthropic, profanity-laden incitements even more disturbing. There’s something uniquely unsettling about hearing the mutant spawn of Joanna Newsom and Moaning Myrtle seethe, Kill Bill-style, about the cunts and dicks it believes are responsible for the death of its father. “You see?,” the child sneers as an especially obnoxious victim obligingly reveals his boundless selfishness, “These are the sort of people we’re dealing with.”
Of course, only Ruth can hear her baby’s provocations, which—along with the fact that Rowe is essentially talking to herself—firmly sets Prevenge in the realm of the unreliable protagonist. Like Curtis in Jeff Nichols’ masterwork Take Shelter, Ruth is acutely aware that she may be losing her mind, but that cognizance only amplifies the horror of her situation. The decision to follow Ruth’s viewpoint exclusively, and with an almost claustrophobic intensity, augments the oppressive sensation that the viewer is trapped along with her, unable to shut out the bloodthirsty pestering of the thing growing in her womb. This, ultimately, is the dominant fear that pulses icily through the film: The fear of mental invasion, of not knowing if one’s thoughts are one’s own. For any woman who has experienced pregnancy-related bouts of cravings, sensitivities, distraction, forgetfulness, anxiety, depression, and more severe mental health symptoms, such fears are likely all too familiar.
Prevenge reveals little about Ruth’s pre-widowed career or living situation; her killing spree is pointedly planned and carried out from the anonymity of a Cardiff hotel room. The only remnants of her old life are the baby and her untrammeled rage towards the people she blames for her spouse’s demise—although she admittedly also seems to despise humanity in general. What value Ruth ascribes to her child is tainted by maternal fears. Instead of focusing on the joys that life with her new daughter will bring her after her bloody work is done, Ruth can only fume with panic at the thought of losing her child to vague malefactors.
When her midwife (Jo Hartley) suggests bringing in a social services worker to help Ruth address the strain of grieving while preparing for motherhood, she regards this as the first step towards a bureaucrat snatching her baby from her breast. The remarkable sophistication of Rowe’s screenplay and performance is revealed in this sort of complex emotional gesture. In a single passage Rowe succeeds in eliciting diverse and distinct responses from the viewer: pity at Ruth’s losses and her escalating mental breakdown; concern for a child about to arrive into the arms of a violent, unbalanced parent; and sympathy for Ruth’s plight as a solitary woman navigating a dehumanizing modern world still beholden to patriarchy. The latter is embodied in the film’s steady sensitivity to the countless little assumptions, hostilities, and humiliations that mothers-to-be are forced to endure, down to the uninvited hand of another person on Ruth’s swollen abdomen.
Rowe keeps any compassion the viewer might develop for her anti-heroine from growing too substantial through liberal use of black humor. She portrays Ruth as a woman with the dry, indiscriminate contempt of a weary stand-up comedian, just unpleasant enough that, even apart from mass murder, she seems like something of a tactless asshole. She has a compulsion for baldly disrespecting people in an off-handed way, such that it often takes the listener a few beats to realize that they should be insulted. The film’s dirty secret is that Ruth’s fetus doesn’t have to push all that hard to get her to lash out at the world. Her self-consciousness of her victim status combined with a lifetime of enculturation in the sanctity of motherhood burnishes her sense of self-righteous wrath. When a frightened victim attempts to stall her by gently observing, “You’re grieving,” she becomes piqued, enunciating mockingly, “I’m not greev-ing. I’m ges-tayt-ing!”
Visually and aurally, the film is more workmanlike than striking, befitting a lowish-budget indie shot on video in a matter of weeks. There are flashes of sensory richness in the film’s moody color correction and in the urgent, slightly threatening electronic score by Pablo Clements and James Griffith. Just as often, however, the film fumbles aesthetically, such as with cinematographer Ryan Eddleston’s dependence on handheld shots with sloppy framing and erratic focus.
That said, the film’s appeal lies in Rowe’s overall direction, writing, and performance, and those are sufficiently imposing that concerns about Prevenge’s formal sturdiness fall away. Along with the film’s general sensitivity to the psychological and societal nuances of expectant mothers’ experiences, what most impresses is Rowe’s facility for keeping the film dangerously off-kilter in terms of its sympathies. Given that she was in fact pregnant when she made Prevenge, these achievements are hardly surprising. While there are perils in asserting that “a man could not have made this film,” it’s undeniable that a male-directed Prevenge wouldn’t have turned out to be such a wicked, multi-faceted pleasure. Arguably, an auteur who hasn’t experienced a hostile takeover of their mind and body by a little parasitic pseudo-person would have delivered a far less stimulating horror picture.