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Simon Read [Celluloid 03.27.17] United Kingdom horror comedy

[Editor's note: Prevenge is currently streaming on SHUDDER.]

Prevenge is the feature directorial debut from Alice Lowe. It follows her character, Ruth, a heavily pregnant widow suffering through a psychotic breakdown as a result of the death of her husband from a climbing accident. Ruth believes that her unborn child is speaking directly to her from inside the womb, telling her to do terrible things, to track down the other climbers from her husband's party, to murder them all one by one. This is exactly what she intends to do.

Alice Lowe is a British actress and comedian probably best known for her role in Ben Wheatley's Sightseers (or for cult TV fans, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace). Prevenge feels like a sister-film to Sightseers, which concerned two misanthropic outcasts who decide to murder anyone they consider objectionable as they embark on a doomed camping trip. That the deadpan tone is essentially the same, the characters almost uniformly grotesque and unsympathetic, and the humour borne from a mixture of absurdist, extremely dark comedy and left-field visual gags, suggests that Lowe was aiming for something similar, but what sets Prevenge apart from Sightseers (or any post-League of Gentlemen, post-Chris Morris dark, observational comedy) is the focus on Ruth herself.

In Wheatley's film the killings are all but random, the characters often appearing larger-than-life, but here Lowe's character is engaged in a determined revenge on a considerable scale. She is insane, there's no doubt about it, but as we watch Lowe's performance, follow Ruth's bizarre, horrible journey, we're invited to sympathize with her. "Your baby will tell you what to do," explains a sympathetic health worker. "I think she already is," replies Ruth.

As her sanity collapses, as we learn more about Ruth's past, and as the bodies mount, a certain pathos emerges. Through 'conversations' with the unborn baby in her stark hotel room late at night, the extent of Ruth's mental illness and trauma become clear. A revelation towards the end of the film, a moment in which the ugly curtain of reality threatens to fall on Ruth's carefully constructed, righteous fantasy, drives this stake firmly home, so that far from feeling critical of her actions, we're simply left reeling at the pain through which she has suffered. Whether one agrees with all this though, will probably depend on one's threshold for decidedly warped humour.

As a whole, the film is not an easy watch, and it certainly contains a few flaws, not least of which is the uneasy marriage between light and dark. Many scenes are played for laughs, such as an encounter with a boorish, arrogant pub DJ whom Ruth clumsily seduces before brutally castrating him in front of his own mother. This scene is darkly amusing, unpleasant and uncomfortable to sit through, yet it contains several laughs because it's just so terribly awkward.

This inconsistency is part of the point, but it does make it difficult to enter into the rhythm of the film. I've mentioned Chris Morris, and Prevenge feels a little like an extended sketch from his series Blue Jam - a show characterized by surrealism, stilted awkwardness, paranoia, and a distinctly grim view of humanity. Ruth also exhibits a strain of malevolent sociopathy similar to Julia Davis's character Jill Tyrrell , from her show Nighty Night, and one senses that the two characters could be distant cousins.

While there is kindness and warmth within the film, supplied largely by a sympathetic prenatal nurse, none of this impacts on Ruth. She is lost in a sea of hatred - for her, every act of concern masks an ulterior motive. The film is unsettling, presenting an ugly world inhabited by flawed creatures, and the film often struggles to reconcile this vision with its distinct sense of humour. When it works, it's genuinely pretty hilarious, but then you catch yourself and think, 'Wait, why am I laughing?'

Specific encounters, individual scenes which contain extremely impressive performances, are what keep the film from floundering. A cameo from Kate Dickie, conducting a job interview, stands out as near-perfect in a scene as tense (and brutally funny) as anything I can remember from recent years. Confrontations between Lowe and Kayvan Novak, playing the climbing instructor Ruth believes responsible for her husband's death, contain exactly the right mixture of sadness, frustration and anger - from both parties. The film does not always find a comfortable balance between its absurdity and its bleakness - both threatening, occasionally, to undermine the other - but it contains many startling moments, and several very funny ones.

Lowe's direction is confident and assured, and for a film shot in 11 days on a relatively low budget, it looks impressive. A scene towards the end, during which Ruth attends a Halloween party, makes skillful use of bold colours, red and greens, suggesting a descent into hell. Flashbacks punctuate the film, offering us insight into Ruth's past, and these work to lend the character a degree of sympathy.

Songs from electronic musicians Toydrum, unsettling, driving electronic beats, provide an appropriate soundtrack to Ruth's mounting alienation and mania. From a technical standpoint the film is difficult to fault.

Prevenge isn't a lighthearted romp, in case you've missed that point. It does at times feel somewhat typical of the post-modern British black comedy - that blending of offbeat humour and sadistic behavior - but I appreciated Lowe's performance, the sadness, the fury and confusion projected by her character. At times the film feels as though it's struggling to hold itself together as there is no anchor, no sense of reality to it (characters' actions are too often ludicrous to take events entirely seriously) but there are enough interesting things happening in this intense, complex film to satisfy fans of pitch black comedy. Just don't enter into it expecting a feel-good movie.

Recommended Release: Sightseers

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