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“It’s like a hostile takeover,” says Ruth of her pregnancy, hinting at the sinister power of the creature growing inside her and driving her, via a voice in her head, to conduct a methodical killing spree in Prevenge. Malevolence in utero is a horror staple of which Rosemary’s Baby remains the supreme example. Writer-director Alice Lowe — who played Ruth seven months into her own real-life pregnancy — evokes not so much Roman Polanski as a kind of deadpan, British kitchen-sink Dario Argento with her oddball tale of a grieving expectant mother managing her pain in unexpected ways.
Lowe co-wrote Sightseers and is best known outside Britain as one half of the dorky caravan-tourism couple who began bumping off annoying fellow Lake District travelers in Ben Wheatley’s 2012 black comedy.
Prevenge traffics in a similar tone, and if the filmmaking skills are less refined, the scrappiness suits the material, down to its regular splashes of low-rent gore. But as the psychodrama of a lonely woman with a score to settle acquires seriousness it saps the misanthropic sense of mischief and madness, causing the movie to lose its way. Still, the gleeful post-feminist subversiveness of the premise and Lowe’s willingness to explore the darkest avenues of pre-partum blues should help the modest production stake out a small niche.
Unfolding in drab suburban Cardiff, Wales, the story begins in a pet shop specializing not in cuddly critters but in reptiles and arachnids. Their purveyor, Mr. Zabek (Dan Renton Skinner), is every bit as creepy as his inventory. When Ruth calmly slits his throat it gives the heavily pregnant woman evident satisfaction, a feeling that deepens when she opens her “Baby’s First Steps” scrapbook and scrawls “One down.”
While Lowe throws in visual clues from the start about the accident that cost the life of the baby’s father and the circumstances linking her chain of victims to that tragedy, part of the fun during the initial killings is trying to figure it all out. We get help from the voice inside Ruth’s womb.
“Be ruthless, Ruth,” the chatty fetus urges, as the mother-to-be continues her murderous mission by castrating a skeevy misogynist known as DJ Dan (Tom Davis) after ‘70s Disco Night at a local club. “People think babies are sweet,” chirps that inner voice. “But I’m bitter.” The extreme irreverence of not just the sainted Madonna figure but also the child she’s carrying being fueled by hate is especially delectable coming from the mind of a pregnant writer.
A midwife who’s the very essence of patronizing concern (Jo Hartley) explains, “You have absolutely no control over your mind or your body anymore. But baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you.” She doesn’t know the half of it.
Ruth bounces from weariness to quiet moments of emotional release to jolts of wild-eyed madness that ape the three furies from the opening of the 1934 proto-noir Crime Without Passion, which she watches on her laptop. Feeling transformed by each kill, she takes particular delight in the irony of introducing her blade to a chilly businesswoman (Kate Dickie) who confesses that staffing policies have forced her to make some “harsh cuts.”
That novel twist of a woman incubating new life while eliminating others — people she believes have robbed her and her unborn daughter of their happiness — gives Prevenge a uniquely exhilarating disregard for conventional morality. And that’s just what a juicy slasher movie needs. But problems emerge when Ruth begins to doubt the virtue of her quest. She’s unnerved when the kind housemate of one victim gets in the way and then when the impending fatherhood of another forces her to consider what she’s doing to an innocent mother, let alone to another unborn child.
Ruth’s vacillation riles up the bloodlust-driven baby, who makes her dissatisfaction all too clear. But it also defangs the movie as it limps with less and less conviction toward a soggy conclusion during which the actual birth brings a new perspective. Having started out on such a black-hearted romp, which she underplays to the hilt, Lowe ultimately seems unsure how to wrap up all the carnage in a satisfying ending. Even the introduction of a police investigation might have added some necessary tension to the final scenes — surely someone on the force could have connected the dots among the victims?
A technically rough-edged project made on what appears to be a slender budget with an uneven cast, Prevenge benefits from a ‘70s-throwback synth score by Toydrum (Pablo Clements and James Griffith) that evokes vintage Argento at his most lurid. Too bad Lowe didn’t run with that influence all the way through the third trimester and into the maternity ward. A closing banshee scream merely underscores the writer-director-star’s fumbling search for an ending.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics Week); also in Toronto festival
Cast: Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie, Jo Hartley, Leila Hoffman, Kayvan Novak, Dan Renton Skinner, Tom Davis, Mike Wozniak
Production companies: Western Edge Pictures, Gennnaker Group
Director-screenwriter: Alice Lowe
Producers: Vaughan Sivell, Jennifer Handorf, Will Kane
Executive producers: Mike Rattenbury, Vaughan Sivell, Will Kane, Franki Goodwin, Mike Shirley, Andrew Thomas
Director of photography: Ryan Eddelston
Production designer: Blair Barnette
Costume designer: Sarah-Jane Perez
Editor: Matteo Bini
Casting: Danny Jackson
Sales: ICM, XYZ Films
No rating, 92 minutes.
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