Sunday 26 February 2017

Prevenge: Alice Lowe's directorial debut is a blood-soaked, laugh-packed delight

Lowe on a high: Alice's directorial debut is a cut above

Please note: Review contains mild spoilers

Director: Alice Lowe
Starring: Alice Lowe, Jo Hartley, Kayvan Novak
Running time: 88 minutes

The world needs another revenge movie like it needs a head-on collision with an asteroid, and another slasher flick even less so. But if Prevenge doesn't sound particularly promising on paper, in reality it soars.

Writer/director/star Alice Lowe famously completed the screenplay in a fortnight and shot the film in 11 days spread over three weeks, all whilst seven months pregnant. She plays Ruth, a mother-to-be whose partner has been killed in a climbing accident. Now, big kitchen knife in hand, she's out to get even with all those she blames for his demise. Or, rather, Ruth may be doing the actual murders but it's the inhabitant of her womb who is pulling the strings - urging on his/her mother in a scary little alien voice, only we and Ruth can hear, to take bigger risks and commit ever-more violent acts.

Lowe has been an increasingly essential presence in British comedy for the last dozen or so years - whether it's TV work such as Garth Merenghi's Dark Place and Horrible Histories, or movies such as Sightseers (which she co-wrote) and the underrated Black Mountain Poets. She has a perfect comedy face - eyes that go from sorrowful to psycho in a flash, a downturned mouth that encapsulates a certain British discontent, and a magnificent chin. It's all topped off by that West Midlands burr - an accent that is pretty much comic gold all on its own (it's okay for me to say that, I was born just down the road from Lowe's hometown, Coventry). Prevenge, though, is the point at which she goes from cultish character actor and gifted screenwriter to a genuine player. Expect her now to be linked with all manner of dreadful Hollywood horror sequel but I suspect - and hope - she'll continue to do her own thing.

Over the last few years, the horror/comedy bar has been lifted again and again by movies like What We Do In The Shadows and Tucker And Dale vs Evil, plus TV shows such as the BBC's Inside No.9 and Netflix's recent Santa Clarita Diet. The days of Lesbian Vampire Killers and half-arsed Fright Night remakes, starring former Doctor Whos, are mercifully long gone. What those behind the good stuff understand - and Lowe gets spot-on - is that genuine horror (guts, gore, suspense, chills, and atmosphere) has to be as high in the mix as the gags and the slapstick. Having a killer electronic soundtrack helps, and Prevenge comes packing one of those, too.

Child's play: Ruth's unborn baby urges her to kill

Initially, the killings are played for laughs as our up-the-duff slasher goes about her bloody work. These include the slaughter of a sleazy seller of exotic animals, a flint-hearted office manager, and a cocksure, middle-aged DJ - Disco Dan - who lives with his mum. Even during these seemingly knockabout moments, though, it's obvious the film's style and tone are informed as much by Dario Argento and John Carpenter as they are by good, old-fashioned British character comedy. The latter scene set in Disco Dan's flat is one of the strongest in the film, not just because it's very funny, but because it's also shocking, bloody and graphic (Ruth doesn't hang about when it's time to get stabby). More than that, Lowe even manages to show us a gentler side of her protagonist here, as she not only helps her victim's dementia-afflicted mother back to bed but puts her washing on, too. We like Ruth, even sympathise with her... apart from all the killings and that.

Lowe's script is satisfyingly economical (at 88 minutes, so is the film). She doesn't waste a word nor any of our time spelling out plot points that are obvious if you just think about them for a second. Better yet, the jokes (and there are many) are never over-egged and her characters are all fully formed (albeit short-lived). The ensemble Lowe has gathered about her contribute enormously and are practically a who's who of under-appreciated British acting talent, including Kate Dickie (The Witch), Kayvan Novak (Fonejacker), Tom Davis (Murder In Successville), Jo Hartley (David Brent: Life On The Road), and Dan Renton Skinner (aka Angelos Epithemiou). All of them have that 'haven't I seen you before somewhere?' quality and more than make the most of their limited screen time.

Scream queen: Alice Lowe writes, directs and stars in Prevenge

As the film proceeds, Ruth becomes increasingly ill at ease with what she is being bidden to do by the tiny sociopath in her womb, especially when one intended victim is actually kind to her. You also start to get the distinct impression that not all is as it seems, and wonder what significance the old black and white film to which she keeps returning - 1934's Crime Without Passion - might have (quite a bit, is the answer). Slowly but surely, Lowe is setting up what becomes Prevenge's masterstroke: an expertly executed thematic switch towards the end. What begins as a loud, lairy and gloriously unsubtle exploration of an expectant mother's fear that her body is no longer her own, actually ends up as more a meditation on the corrosive nature of grief and betrayal. Amidst the murder and mayhem, Prevenge is quite poignant.

Lowe's film is impressive for its restraint. There must have been a temptation to up the amount of story content - maybe add a subplot in which the police, or a crime reporter, are hot on Ruth's trail, leading to a big climactic confrontation. But Prevenge clearly isn't intended to be that movie - if anything, it's a character study of a woman teetering on the edge of mental and emotional oblivion and its simplicity is the key to its success in many ways.

It's towards her movie's climax that Lowe starts to show off a visual flair, and really grow into her role as director. Ruth dresses up as a hellish geisha to attend a Halloween fancy-dress party and walks across the city (Prevenge was filmed in Cardiff) to her destination, encountering other costumed horrors along the way. Shot mostly from her, first-person, perspective, it has a dream-like quality, as if Ruth is having an out-of-body experience and has finally had all control of her actions wrested away. The blurry, impressionistic, whirl of out-of-focus street lights, drunken revellers and foreboding tower blocks brings a distinctly Carpenter-esque unease to proceedings. (Her nod, in an earlier scene, to Andrzej Zulawski's utterly bonkers Possession is further proof that she clearly knows her onions when it comes to disquieting movies likely to bring you out in a cold sweat).

Pregnancy is a theme that continues to loom large in the horror movie genre (recent examples including Grace, Devil's Due, Delivery, Proxy, and Inside), but Prevenge brings something a little different to the table - not just black comedy and a penis-lopping scene, but a bit of proper emotional heft, too. Appreciate and cherish Alice Lowe while you still can because, chances are, it's only a matter of time before Hollywood comes calling with an offer to write and direct Paranormal Activity 14: Even More Ghosts 'n' Shit.

Rating: WWW½

Prevenge is in UK cinemas now and released on DVD/Blu-ray on 5 June. In the US, it will be available on the Shudder horror streaming service from 24 March

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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