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D: Alice Lowe / 88m

Cast: Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak, Kate Dickie, Dan Renton Skinner, Tom Davis, Mike Wozniak, Tom Meeten, Gemma Whelan

In Alice Lowe’s feature debut as writer/director, the premise is simple: a pregnant woman is convinced her unborn foetus is compelling her to kill the people she holds responsible for the death of her partner. Angry and upset at being alone, Ruth (Lowe) targets each individual – inappropriate pet shop owner Mr Zabek (Skinner), repulsive Seventies DJ Dan (Davis), lonely corporate lawyer Ella (Dickie), anonymous victim  Zac (Meeten), apologetic rock climbing guide Tom (Novak), fitness fanatic Len (Whelan) – at the behest of her unborn child, and in the process finds being a mother-to-be more daunting (obviously) than she’d ever expected.

Made over a two week period while Lowe was actually pregnant, Prevenge is a movie that covers a lot of ground in its relatively short running time, and which isn’t just a standard revenge thriller tricked out with gory set pieces. It’s also a pitch black comedy, an uncompromising examination of an emotionally disturbed pregnant woman, and a mordaunt exercise in extreme pre-natal depression. Lowe has created a complex, flawed-yet-undeniably decent anti-heroine whose particular psychosis is both alarming and understandable at the same time. She has conversations with her unborn child that push the envelope of maternal paranoia. While most expectant mothers will worry that there might be something wrong with their baby, it’s safe to assume that they won’t be worried about the foetus talking to them and advocating a string of murders.

Throughout, Ruth is worried that her baby might not be normal. She misses a scan just in case it reveals something abnormal, an issue that Ruth’s midwife (Hartley) dismisses with the practised ease of someone who’s heard it all before. But of course, Ruth knows better. Cajoled and persuaded by the baby growing inside her to become a serial killer, Ruth knows that her baby is abnormal; she just doesn’t want anyone to know how much. When the midwife makes mention of letting Social Services know that Ruth is struggling with the pregnancy, Ruth is adamant that she doesn’t want them involved, that she doesn’t want her baby taken away from her. Despite her mixed feelings, Ruth’s maternal instinct to protect her offspring is as deep-rooted and profound as any other mother’s.

Lowe makes Ruth’s ambivalence a credible reaction to the idea that she’s being urged to revenge by a foetus, a “belief” that is clearly the result of a mental break that Ruth has experienced in the wake of her partner’s death. Lowe is also clever enough to avoid trying to introduce any notion of ambiguity to this fractured relationship – Ruth is mentally ill, and though is a movie with very definite horror overtones, any potential supernatural reason for the foetus’ speaking to her is never allowed any credence. Ruth is maddened by grief, then, and it’s this reason that provides her with both a defined character arc, and the necessary sympathy to help audiences identify with her.

In terms of Ruth’s victims, Lowe is also clever enough to make it a game of two halves. Mr Zabek, DJ Dan, and Ella are all horrible people in their own right. Mr Zabek is the slimy high priest of sexual innuendo, while DJ Dan is so crass and boorish that he can throw up into his Seventies afro wig and then think nothing of kissing Ruth full on the lips. Ella is unfeeling, dismissive of others, and generally insensitive. Each of them are so awful that when Ruth kills them the temptation is to cheer, and urge her on to the next victim. But when she arrives at Zac’s home – and makes Ruth the cuckoo in the nest, a neat twist on her own situation – Lowe finds that Zac’s flatmate, Josh (Wozniak), is a genuinely nice man, something she wasn’t expecting. His subsequent demise doesn’t sit well with Ruth, despite her baby’s withering disregard for both him and Ruth’s feelings.

From there on, Ruth’s commitment to avenging her partner’s death begins to falter. Her first contact with Tom (prior to despatching Zac) didn’t go the way she’d planned, and her next attempt fails also, so she moves on to Len, who puts up a fight (complete with boxing gloves). Her midwife, realising something is wrong, admonishes Ruth and tells her it’s got to stop. Returning to Tom again, Ruth finds his partner is expecting a child also, and her maternal instinct kicks in for this other mother-to-be: how fair would it be for Tom’s partner to be in the same situation as Ruth? The foetus is unconcerned, but before Ruth can go through with anything, her waters break and her whole world changes. Some viewers may think that this “second half” isn’t as effective as the gore and humour-soaked “first half”, but Lowe isn’t interested in simply repeating the early formula, and instead adds layers to both Ruth’s predicament and the movie’s overall sense of bitter regret.

But this is a comedy as well as a sustained and impressive look at pre-natal paranoia and psychosis. Lowe is an accomplished writer of naturalistic dialogue, but she’s also a winner when it comes to pithy one-liners (of anchovies: “They look like the eyelids of old men that have died”), and isn’t afraid to include some really bad puns, such as, “It’s a cutthroat world, you know”, after slitting Ella’s throat. There’s the aforementioned sexual innuendo of Mr Zabek (which often settles for the single entendre), and some of DJ Dan’s observations (“You’re not Olivia Newton-John. You’re more like Elton John”) are so cruelly insulting that you can’t help laughing at them, even though you shouldn’t. And Ruth herself, in her disjointed, socially awkward way, says things that only she could (mostly) get away with. It’s through the dialogue that Lowe builds her characters, fleshing them out and giving the cast much more to work with than it seems at first.

When it comes to the gore, the movie doesn’t hold back, with each death played out in the style of an Eighties British horror, and there’s a mundanity to each one that adds to the overall effectiveness (Ruth’s weapon of choice is a carving knife). Again, Lowe isn’t afraid to show how awful each murder is, nor how it affects Ruth the longer she continues. In the lead role, Lowe gives a terrific performance, one that’s brimming with quiet verve and sincerity, and is thoughtful and brave. When she applies make up for Halloween and takes to the streets, it’s easy to see just how disturbed she is thanks to the design she’s created (even though you can see it just as well by the look in Ruth’s eyes). Ruth is a wonderful creation, and Lowe does her justice, never striking a false note, and staying true to the character throughout. The movie could almost be a one-woman show, were it not for a battery of equally commendable performances from the likes of Hartley and Dickie, and if the men – for the most part – come off as douchebags and unreliable pricks, then it’s a small price to pay when a movie is this good and this rewarding.

Rating: 8/10 – a movie about a damaged soul that comes complete with plenty of heart and soul amidst all the carnage, Prevenge is uncompromising, poignant and hilarious, and a major feather in Lowe’s cap; marred only by some poor lighting choices made on too many occasions, and a final scene that goes against everything that’s gone before, it’s a movie that’s full of surprises and confidently assembled by its very talented writer/director/star.