Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Prevenge and emotion and ambiguity in horror films

Spoilers for Prevenge abound further down

I went to Sheffield's bestest indie cinema the Showroom to watch Alice Lowe's debut feature Prevenge last night. I don't want this to be a review as such, but suffice it to say it's gory, bleakly hilarious and shot through with surprising melancholy. Lowe, who wrote, directed and acts the shit out it has crafted a great film which is destined for cult classic status. I'll give it a 9/10

This was a preview and there was a Q&A with Lowe afterwards. A couple of things she said got me thinking about the type of horror films I tend to love (if Prevenge can strictly speaking be called a horror film, which I think it can. Lowe said she was influenced by horror films so yeah, I'm going with horror film).

Lowe mentioned that she deliberately added an emotional and psychological element to the horror and the comedy, feeling that comedy-horror had been a pretty well-mined seam since Sean of the Dead. She's certainly succeeded. Spoilers from here on in.

The main character Ruth is heavily pregnant, lonely and grieving. Her partner died in a climbing accident a few months ago and she is driven to kill the others from the party who she holds responsible for his death. Many horror films have a psychological element of course, but I think it is the emotional depths which elevate Prevenge. Some scenes are genuinely heartbreaking, such as when Ruth presses up against the wall of her bedroom beyond which her neighbours are having noisy, energetic sex. Though she found it annoying earlier by this point in the film she is so desperate for any human contact which doesn't involve a midwife or murdering someone she wants to get as close as possible.

There are few horror films which go for emotions other than, y'know, fear (or revulsion). Even some of my favourites are a bit lacking in this area. As much as I love It Follows, it's mostly down to the puzzle it creates, how the concept is used for symbolic depth and how amazingly put together it is as a film. Same with Kairo, which I admire as a formal exercise in masterful atmosphere and genuine inventiveness. The Exorcist is a great film about religion, again beautifully crafted, but little in the way of emotional investment.

I've tried to think of horror films I love which have the same emotional depth as Prevenge. I reckon The Babadook counts, though it feels lazy to say it what with it also having a female writer/director. It's also a film about grief and motherhood, though these themes are much more to the fore in Jennifer Kent's film. The emotional investment comes from the relationship between Amelia and Samuel. The Witch may also count, where the disintegration of family is one of the keystones of the film.

Speaking of The Witch, when I wrote about that (sorta) recently I mentioned how one of the things I like about it is the lack of ambiguity. One of the things I like about Prevenge is the ambiguity. Again, this is something Lowe touched on in her Q&A. She says that she was very much thinking about “likeability” when she was writing the film, and how lead female characters are supposed to be likeable.

Ruth can switch being sympathetic and unsympathetic throughout the film, often in the course of a single scene. After committing probably the most wince inducing murder in the film (if you own a pair of testicles it is anyway), she immediately starts taking care of her victim's elderly, senile relative, doing the washing and putting her to bed. It's incredibly sweet, which makes it even more unnerving after the horrible act she's just committed. Even the biggest dickheads among her targets have their moments that serve to show they're just normal human beings.

Ruth is of course extremely mentally unwell. Her unborn child is not talking to her demanding that she go on a murder splurge. Grief, loneliness and the surreal horror of being pregnant have made her crazy (though Lowe lays in some hints that Ruth was perhaps a bit “interesting” before any of this happened). The ambiguity I'm getting a bit tired of (as talked about in the The Witch entry) is the whole “is it supernatural or all in their heads” thing. The ambiguity in Prevenge is about whether Ruth is the protagonist or antagonist in her own story.

So what do these suggest to me about the horror films I like? As much as I love a well made splatter fest or jump scare factory I do appreciate a bit more depth in my favourite genre. Alice Lowe has shown that she is more than capable of bringing that depth. I can't wait for to see what she does next.

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