Kids say the darndest things. In the sharply serrated British import Prevenge, an expectant mother goes on a killing spree at the behest of her unborn daughter, who gives her marching orders from the womb: Call it The Boss Baby. Evil offspring are a common trope in horror films, channeling our collective anxieties about the future in the form of platinum-blonde schoolchildren (Village of the Damned), cherubic antichrists (The Omen), and demonically possessed adolescents (The Exorcist), but a movie about a bad seed that hasn’t even sprouted yet borders on the ingenious.
It’s also a fertile metaphor for the fraught status of female authorship in a genre that’s historically proved cozier for male creators. The reedy-voiced fetus compelling preggers Ruth (writer-director Alice Lowe) to murder anybody who looks at her sideways is also a conduit for her strength and creativity, and as such must be nurtured to term in spite of its aberrance. Prevenge lovingly sends up psycho-killer conventions, yet what’s really at stake in Lowe’s thriftily financed sophomore feature — which was shot to coincide with its maker’s real-life pregnancy — is nothing less than the question facing all new parents and artists alike: What is at risk by bringing something new and unruly into the world?
Although the territory covered in Prevenge feels fresh, the film isn’t quite sui generis. Like both the recent distaff genre anthology XX and Jordan Peele’s box-office beating Get Out, it owes especial debts to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. (One way to describe the movie is as what would happen if “Little Andy or Jenny” ever responded to Mia Farrow’s murmurs of devotion.) It also slots nicely into a cycle of recent U.K. productions that have hybridized humor and horror to unsettling effect, starting with Sightseers, a supremely caustic comedy cowritten by Lowe and directed by Ben Wheatley. The 2012 film concerns two 30-something lovers whose caravan trip through the English countryside amasses a body count of innocent bystanders and fellow travelers whose presence threatens their shared escapist fantasies.
Sightseers’ depiction of coupledom as a shared psychosis leans heavily on Lowe’s brilliance as a performer. She has an uncanny ability to stylize herself into different personas without losing the common thread between them. Her Sightseers’ character’s transformation from a mousy recluse into apex predator is subtly modulated against the beta-male mediocrity of Steve Oram as her lesser half, who comes to fear that his new girlfriend’s sadistic streak might outstrip his own. (Oram also tried his hand at bizarro horror-comedy in 2015 with the surreal Aaaaaaaah!, a parable set in an alternate-universe South London, where language has broken down entirely and humans have reverted to animalistic savagery.)
That Sightseers’ stars created their own roles adds a layer of film-industrial subtext to the story of stifled would-be artists acting out against a society that would consign them to afterthought status, while the startling cruelty of the movie’s violence opens up its own extra dimension: Sightseers extracts the competitiveness and resentment beneath the surface of even the glossiest rom-coms and distills them into something potent and toxic.
If Wheatley and his filmmaking partner Amy Jump are at the creative center of this new movement in British independent cinema, then Lowe, who starred in fellow Wheatley alum Gareth Tunley’s satisfyingly eerie 2016 procedural, The Ghoul, and made a cameo in Aaaaaaaah! (as well as small roles in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) is becoming its onscreen face. Her role in Prevenge calls back so closely to Sightseers that the new film could be a spiritual sequel: It’s as if Ruth is picking up where her (childless) predecessor left off.
In Prevenge’s opening sequence, she suffers the sleazy come-ons of a pet store owner who’s trying to show her his “big fat snake,” even though she has only mesmerized eyes for the fuzzy black tarantula in the next case over; she recognizes the spider as a fellow mother-to-be and proves adept at springing her trap. Ruth slits the creep’s throat shortly thereafter, setting up expectations that her murderousness will be an expression of gender-specific rage a la Abel Ferrara’s revenge masterpiece Ms. 45, in which Zoe Lund lays waste to New York’s male population. The resentment that’s festering inside Ruth is at once more multidirectional and resolutely focused, however, and the film is closer in outline and spirit to Kill Bill, whose opening title could be tweaked in this case to read “prevenge is a dish best served cold.”
Lowe has in fact invoked Quentin Tarantino’s avenging-angel epic as one influence among many, although Prevenge swaps out QT’s putative feminism for something considerably less crowd-pleasing and politically correct. The Bride’s maternal instinct gives her carte blanche in Kill Bill’s kung-fu cartoon universe, and her climactic reunion with her abducted daughter redeems even her (and her director’s) goriest indulgences, recasting grindhouse homage in the shadow of family values.
Sleep-deprived and clad in frumpy jumpers, Ruth isn’t remotely an action heroine like Uma Thurman (the one out-and-out fight scene plays up her lack of grace) and her pregnancy doesn’t give her moral authority, either. Instead, it’s the very wellspring of her vindictiveness, a life force conjoined with a death drive. Prevenge never once plays nice, and continually complicates identification with its protagonist, who keeps snapping off misanthropic one-liners, the best of which puts even Mother Nature in her place.
Prevenge’s griminess is visual as well as verbal; the slightly heightened, fetchingly disheveled naturalism of Lowe’s approach is rooted in practicality (the film was shot over two weeks with a small crew in Cardiff) and betrays her background in improv comedy, where the goal at all times is to go with the flow even (or especially) when people start acting weird.
The film unfolds as a series of duets, either between Ruth and her potential victims — who are are all disarmed in one way or another by their killer’s “delicate condition,” expecting her to be meek or harmless and being unpleasantly surprised — or Ruth and her in-utero alter ego, who Lowe conceived as “a goddess of anger, a Fury.” Lowe does all her own baby talk in what basically amounts to a dual role, and some of her best acting comes as she’s listening attentively to her own inner monologue.
Ruth’s complaint to a doctor that her body has become the site of a “hostile takeover” gives Prevenge its paranoid edge, but the funniest (and most liberating) suggestion in the screenplay is that Ruth is subconsciously using her pregnancy as a pretense for the sort of mayhem supposedly domesticated by motherhood — getting it all out of her system while she can.
“In a way, being pregnant liberated me,” Lowe told The Guardian, “I’m doing this, it might be my last chance to direct anything.” An extended sequence at a Halloween house party, with Ruth rocking a blood-red dress and black-and-white monster makeup, brilliantly visualizes the idea of meeting life-changing responsibilities on one’s own smirking terms. (Lowe’s Finn Bálor–demon-queen get-up is instantly iconic, and could end up being an enduring Halloween costume of choice for the sexy-cinephile set).
On a narrative level, Prevenge is at once sturdily engineered and a little bit too tidy, and its shocks grow ever more predictable. And because it doesn’t quite stick its landing, it seems underwhelming in spite of its best bits, including some quick-cut, effectively Wheatleyian imagery that’s been dropped into the mix and a well-deployed electronic score by Toydrum. At this point, Lowe is a more striking and resourceful actor than director, and that’s fine. She’s clearly a huge talent, and it’s encouraging to see her finding her voice so soon, even if it’s creepy baby-doll drone.
Prevenge opens Friday in N.Y. and L.A., and will be available nationwide on the streaming platform Shudder.