Pop culture frequently depicts pregnant women as beatific fertility goddesses, flush with hormones and the unparalleled satisfaction of fulfilling their biological destiny. (See: Beyoncé’s pregnancy photos.) Either that or they’re fragile vessels, their “condition” rendering them vulnerable to not only the cruelties of men but also the whims of the life inside them. Writer-director Alice Lowe—the co-writer of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, who’s probably best known in the U.S. for her roles in Hot Fuzz and on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace—skewers both of these viewpoints in Prevenge, a wryly misanthropic slasher comedy about a woman whose fetus commands her to kill.
Lowe, who was actually pregnant during filming, stars as Ruth, a seemingly rootless woman who lives out of a hotel room and stalks the streets of an anonymous city searching for what at first seem to be random victims. Her only regular human contact is with her condescending midwife (Jo Hartley), who dispenses clichéd platitudes like “baby knows best” and reminds Ruth that she’s been given a beautiful gift of nature. “I think nature’s a bit of a cunt, though,” Ruth responds. And indeed, she’s been dealt an exceptionally bad hand: A recent widow, she found out she was pregnant on the day her husband died in a rock-climbing accident and is now utterly alone. And if that wasn’t bad enough, her baby, who speaks to Ruth in a deceptively chirpy voice, is already a cynical, bloodthirsty little monster. And she hasn’t even been born yet!
But while Prevenge does touch on the utter strangeness of having a whole other person growing inside you, this isn’t a body-horror movie along the lines of Alien. Most of the film’s horror comes from the unease of watching a heavily pregnant woman commit cruel acts of graphic, bloody violence, playing on the stereotype of mothers as essentially kind. Ruth is no earth mama. She relates more to the vengeful spirits in 1934’s Crime Without Passion, clips of which pop up periodically throughout the film. And her victims, by and large, are horrible people, from loser DJ Dan (Tom Davis), whose delusions of freewheeling virility don’t match up to his pathetic living situation, to cold-hearted Ella (Kate Dickie), whose cutthroat corporate attitude serves as the setup for an especially groan-worthy pun.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Ruth isn’t just offing assholes, as brutally black-and-white as her worldview may be. She’s even got a kill list—written in a baby book, of course—with names that she crosses off like a prenatal Beatrix Kiddo every time she submits to her fetus’ murderous bidding. As a result, the tone shifts to that of a revenge thriller, culminating in a scene where Ruth dresses up and sets out to claim her last victim at a Halloween party in a scene reminiscent of the climax of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. That’s not the only nod to horror history in the film, either: Visual references to Dario Argento and Andrzej Zulawski (hello, creepy subway tunnel!) amp up the sinister atmosphere, as does the synth-based score from electronic duo Toydrum, in the hallucinatory final third of the film.
Given the highly subjective point of view and unreliable narrator, perhaps it’s inevitable that the script for Prevenge would be a bit rough around the edges, and nitpickers will find plot points to poke holes through. Its shaky, grainy, handheld shooting style and unrelentingly dark worldview seem similarly destined to turn off mainstream viewers. But Lowe’s take on pre- and postnatal depression and the dark side of motherhood is undeniably unique. If nothing else, you’ve got to respect a woman who will push herself through a doggy door while seven months pregnant for her art.