*soon to be streaming on Shudder
There’s nothing weirder, or more terrifying, than taking the innocence of the child and imbuing it with a secret malevolence concealed behind an angelic face. Within the evil child subgenre of horror, the mother is typically the victim, the most obvious target for the child’s hatred. Alice Lowe’s bizarrely delightful horror comedy Prevenge takes those tropes and warps them even further to create a bloody, hilarious, and moving story that asks the question: what if your unborn baby was a serial murderer?
Writer/director Lowe is Ruth, a very pregnant young woman in Cardiff who becomes convinced that her unborn daughter is impelling her to commit murder. As Ruth and her massive belly cut a bloody swath through the night, the mystery of her vengeance is gradually revealed through flashbacks and personal discussions between Ruth and her daughter. The murders are suitably gruesome without being overkill, while Ruth’s motivation for the killings becomes complicated by the fact that none of her victims are particularly sympathetic people.
Lowe is an entertaining screen presence with a wry sense of humor, punctuating her horror film with comedic moments that cut through the violence. She likewise imbues the undeniably comedic aspects of the film with a very palpable sense of anger and loss. Like The Babadook (another film about sympathetic female monstrosity and motherhood), Prevenge treats grief as a physical presence that manifests itself through acts of horrific violence. But the film is further complicated by the questionable nature of Ruth’s sanity – is her unborn child really a monster, or is her pregnancy and its undercurrent of grief warping her mind?
The difference between Prevenge and a similar pregnancy horror film like Rosemary’s Baby is that the mother is herself not a victim – she finds outlet for her fury through her pregnancy, refusing to be subject to the assumptions and controls of the rest of society. It’s hard to feel sorry for most of those subjected to Ruth’s wrath, representative as they are of selfishness, misogyny, and complacency. Ruth’s pregnancy represents both her monstrosity and her strength; she possesses the social stigma and monstrosity that transforms a woman’s body into a vessel “controlled” by the unborn child. While Western society is accustomed to treating pregnant women as both the sublime form of human nature and the ultimate Other, Ruth takes over her Otherness, using it to enact revenge on those who (in her perception) have wronged her.
Prevenge has few weaknesses. It’s well-paced, building up the tension between Ruth’s acts of violence by interspersing visits to the doctor to monitor her pregnancy, and her conversations with the very angry child inside of her. Giving voice to the baby makes it more palpably real, deepening the question of whether Ruth is acting out her own revenge fantasy or the fury of the child that has been deprived even before it was born. That voice also contributes to the comedic nature of the film, refusing to plunge too deeply into elements of horror, grief, or anger, as Ruth argues with a tiny childish voice inside of her about the morality of cutting off a man’s balls.
The female body and female emotions have so typically been the site of monstrosity in horror films that women began to suppress the notion that our hormones and our physical presence in any way distinguished us from maleness. PMS, postpartum depression, the alterations in hormones that comes with pregnancy, the pain of having a period – all suppressed in the belief that to be female was, in essence, to be an Other, to be something unknown and frightening. In evil child films, to be a mother is to be a victim, and in some ways a deserving one – the mother is the conduit for unnatural evil, the one who brought the evil into the world and is thus destroyed by it. It is the role of the father, or of the masculine society, to control that evil, condemn it, and banish it, usually at the expense of mother and child alike. Femininity is uncontrollable emotions writ large, and as such must be suppressed and controlled by the more rational masculine forces.
Prevenge eliminates the father, the patriarchal, and embraces Otherness, the perceived monstrosity of women, and of pregnant women especially. What’s more, it does so from a sympathetic, feminine perspective, emphasizing the cohesion between mother and child, the reality of female anger and the need to express it, or to destroy the world in the attempt. In horror, women typically have a choice between being the victim or the monster. We’ve chosen the monster.
Prevenge will stream on Shudder on March 24.
*Like my writing? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. Your support is appreciated.