Alice Lowe’s smash hit film Prevenge is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 5th June, which gave TVO an ample excuse to revisit a film we’d previously called “a startling debut from an incredibly talented individual”.
With the film also available to download from today, we’ve had a sneaky peek at the discs themselves, and our fresh thoughts on the film and its extras package are below.
When Prevenge was first screened, it wowed audiences into thunderous applause and standing ovations. And yet, the theatrical release was many months away.
At the time, TVO raved about the film, and how it marked Alice Lowe‘s “transformation from cult comedy actress and writer to internationally renowned filmmaker in her own right”. All we could do then was sit back, and wait…
As such, it has been an enormous pleasure watching not only more audiences fall in love with Prevenge, but critics worldwide too: the film currently holds a 95% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and those singing its praises have included The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time Out, Variety and Sight & Sound.
So while the film may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s nevertheless pleasing to know that our positive thoughts do not amount to biased hyperbole: the film is loved, by an awfully large number of people.
Spoiler alert: for the uninitiated, Prevenge follows mother-to-be Ruth (Lowe), currently grieving the recent loss of her partner in an unfortunate climbing accident. Reeling from his death, which happened the day she discovered her pregnancy, Ruth has fixated upon the rest of his climbing group, who survived due to a snap decision to let her partner fall.
In ways which are deliciously not made explicit: Ruth begins to hear her unborn baby talk to her, urging her to kill those who robbed her of Daddy. That this is never confirmed to be a real, supernatural ability on behalf of her daughter, or Ruth’s tired, grief-stricken mind pushing her over the edge, allows for a multiplicity of interpretations for what unfolds on screen, and this in itself fits the duplicitous nature of Ruth as she adopts a multitude of meticulous personas to strike names off her hit-list.
Prevenge is a natural progression for Alice Lowe, allowing for the purest distillation of her unique perspective on humanity yet. Alice’s penchant is for blackly comedic, off-kilter situations which make audiences uncomfortable before pulling the rug from under them leading to utter hysterics via an unexpected twist or a blunt, naturalistic drop back to reality. She draws from her influences in a style reminiscent of one of her heroes, David Bowie: taking a concept from here, and an approach from there, sprinkling on an aesthetic from something else, and then being very open and honest about just where it all came from whilst blowing you away with how well these pieces go together in a manner you’d never have thought of in a million years.
As such, Prevenge feels as if it draws on as much the work of Ken Loach or Alan Bleasdale as it does Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, Noé’s Irreversible, the works of Nicolas Roeg and, of course, the obvious Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession. But like Bowie, Lowe’s inspirations come from further afield that you’d expect: the soundscapes of A Clockwork Orange, the music of Kate Bush, and as she explained to BFI recently, Abraham Bosse’s illustrations for Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and the tomb of Marie Laveau.
And there are shades of her previous work, from Lifespam to Sightseers, to the deliciously bonkers Brethren and the way in which Birdhandler fused the surreal with a naturalistic approach, and how Junglophilia‘s affectionate pastiche of Toyah betrayed Lowe’s obsession with Cracked Actor many moons before Prevenge was a twinkle in the eyes of her painted face.
So too, is Alice’s Wunderland a logical pre-step on this path of discovery: allowing Alice the opportunity to fuse mundane reality with fantastical ideas in the “Poundland of magical realms”: in a parallel universe, the idea of an unborn baby urging its carrier to kill could just as easily be a sketch in the Radio 4 series, and still work. Alice’s oeuvre has frequently put the strange and fantastical into ordinary realms, and that allows for the horror of the situations to feel all the more powerful.
This is ably realised by the wonderful supporting cast, who took Lowe’s deadpan, naturalistic script, and refined it on the day with the actress, writer and director. The production focused on shooting the graphic and intricate death-sequences first and foremost in most cases, which then allowed them the rest of the day to play around with the lead-ups in each vignette. Most of the cast had worked with Lowe before, which no doubt helped the performances, but there isn’t a duff one between them: from Kate Dickie‘s dead-behind-the-eyes corporate middle manager, to Mike Wozniak‘s gentle soul Josh, and Tom Davis‘ lecherous has-been DJ Dan.
As Ruth’s midwife, Jo Hartley has the hardest challenge of all. The allegorical angel on her shoulder, the Midwife’s first appearance cleverly makes her seem like yet another enemy to be ticked off the hit-list, but as the film progresses, she becomes the only person who can genuinely save Ruth from both the devil on her other shoulder (ok, it’s a bit lower down than that), and herself. It’s a real testament to both Hartley’s portrayal, and Lowe’s good nature as a filmmaker, that the Midwife is allowed to be the soul of the picture, even if the mysterious Baby is the deadly beating heart.
And in putting Ruth in the middle of the pair, Alice has created a tortured soul who the audience can either love or hate, and she wisely chooses to give neither side an easy ride. Here is a woman who has lost her entire life, and the love of it for good measure, and is trapped in a seemingly impossible situation which she’s desperate to break free of.
When she meets a man who just so happens to live with one of her potential victims, Ruth lets her guard down and for a brief moment, appears to enjoy a moment of genuine happiness before reality hits, and she realises there’s no going back. And yet, throughout the film, there are also moments when it appears that Ruth is actually celebrating her liberation as a one-woman killing machine, and the freedom that wiping scum off the streets is allowing her. The dichotomy of the character is truly fascinating, and Lowe has not only written it to perfection, but has directed and performed it with a flawless understanding of the shades of grey that real life is all about.
There’s a moment in the middle of the film in which Ruth lies in a tepid bath, staring at her pregnancy bump, and tells her unborn baby how she feels. “I think I’m changing,” she says, “into something else. It’s because of you.” Watching Prevenge feels like Alice really has changed into the incredible film-maker she always promised to be. This isn’t a vanity project, shot in a basic style because the director has some star pulling power: every single aspect of the film has been scrutinised to the finest detail. The soundscape is almost a character in itself, with Toydrum’s brooding electronic score pushing the moods which the film’s colour grading and camera angles support, all without becoming overbearing: the detail is there, if you want it, but easy to ignore if you don’t. Hell, it’s a Film Studies casebook example in waiting, as well as being a seriously bloody funny film.
That last point may be the sincher: Prevenge is a comedy with horror elements, rather than the other way round, and it delivers on that front too. By filling the cast primarily with comedians, the lines never fail to deliver, and quite frankly, if you come out of this film without a huge grin on your face, TVO is a little concerned for you.
Dan Skinner is a brilliantly smutty early addition to the cast, and his chemistry with a flirtatious Lowe is a delight. Tom Davis pulls no punches as the utterly disgusting DJ Dan, and his vigenette also allows the brilliant Leila Hoffman to pull off some gloriously fun scene-stealing. Mike Wozniak and Kayvan Novak bring a charming vulnerability to their performances, and whilst Gemma Whelan‘s brief role is perhaps the one that doesn’t quite land as well as the others, it’s no fault of the actress, but only because her sequence is essentially a spot of light relief at a point when the film needs it most.
The end result is a film that everyone involved has a tremendous right to be proud of. Like Sightseers before it, the theatrical release is only part of the story: Prevenge will live on via DVD, Blu-Ray, Streaming and occasional screenings in the years to come. Rave reviews are one thing, but audience word of mouth will make this film into the cult classic it deserves to be. After all these years, watching Alice Lowe fight to get her own unique vision on screen, it is incredibly gratifying to see it happen for the first time, and even more gratifying to know that it is only the beginning.
It’s a sad fact of both the current feeling towards physical media in the industry, and the limited resources available to smaller productions, that the extras on the DVD and Blu-Ray are rather minimal. Of course, that’s quite often par for the course these days – the streaming market is often key, the discs almost an afterthought. Perhaps one day, Prevenge will be reissued with a glorious retrospective extras package, but right now, what we’ve got is a small but tight sprinkling of bonus material.
The first step for most will be the featurette, Postnatal Confessions, in which Alice Lowe is joined by executive producer Vaughan Sivell, director of photography Ryan Eddleston, editor Matteo Bini and (briefly) co-stars Jo Hartley, Kate Dickie and Kayvan Novak, to talk about the challenges of putting the film on the screen.
It’s quite a dry piece, but not without its charms – from the reveal that the first day of filming involved Alice being naked in the bath (“People are going to see up my vagina. I might as well let go.”), through to former Game of Thrones actress Kate Dickie’s joy that, in comparison, she got to keep her clothes on for this one!
The team talk about the difficulties of getting the film completed before Alice was due to give birth, the genuine fear that the team had for her safety during the Cardiff city centre night shoot on Halloween, and how so many people are convinced that the real birth of Alice’s daughter Della is actually shown on screen.
If there’s any real criticism, it’s that the rest of the film’s stars don’t really feature at all. Kayvan Novak makes a brief appearance early on, to have a muck-about in front of a behind the scenes camera, but crucially, doesn’t get time to talk about his role or the film itself in any degree of reality. Meanwhile, fellow co-stars like Mike Wozniak and Gemma Whelan are conspicuously absent, though this is likely to be due to the frantic nature of the shoot not allowing time for interviews, and the continued demand for their services making a post-filming catch-up rather difficult to arrange.
Still, it would have been nice to see more from the behind the scenes team, given they were clearly on set a lot and potentially lots of laughs were had, though interest in watching such footage may not be high on everyone’s agenda.
Besides the original theatrical trailer, there’s no further video footage to savour, but the core team of Lowe, Sivell, Eddleston and Bini are reunited for a feature-length audio commentary packed with golden nuggets of info, and a lot of laughs.
“It’s quite nerve-wracking isn’t it, doing one of these?” Alice asks at the start. “Can we record the whole thing again once we’ve done it, if we really ruin it? Or, if I really ruin it?”
Yet time and time again, Alice proves to be every bit as fascinating as we here at TVO already knew from our numerous interviews over the years. For example, we learn from dop Ryan Eddleston that Alice provided colour references for every single scene, because she believes every sequence should reflect the moods and emotions of Ruth’s hormonal and mental battles. The awe in Ryan’s voice is sweetly palatable when he says firmly: “No other director does that.”
In fact, Lowe’s attention to detail is the core learning from the commentary. The opening scene went through 28 different edits, as Alice and editor Matteo Bini tried the sequence with differing perspectives so the audience ends up rooting for either Lowe’s Ruth or Dan Skinner’s Mr. Zabek.
And throughout the commentary, she leads the chat not just with positive anecdotes about her cast (a personal favourite, her attempts to make Mike Wozniak look like, and I quote: “Jesus with pasta.”), but with technical talk on grading, the use of specific lenses, the brooding soundscapes she developed with composers Toydrum, and the effects work by Colin J. Smith. The team around her are quick to support her own efforts, even as she downplays them, and it becomes clear that she inspires them to do even better work than they thought possible.
From a TVO perspective, those cast notes are of particular interest. Dan Skinner is ‘hilarious’ but with an ‘edge’; Tom Davis is “a giant in his own lifetime” who was so funny in the DJ booth that the team would have quite happily have used ten minutes of his ad-libs (yes, this is the kind of thing that would have made a great extra feature!).
Elsewhere, Kayvan Novak is praised for his screen idol looks combined with his ability to play ‘slippery’ folk; Gemma Whelan is a chameleon as well as an excellent actress; and Mike Wozniak’s naturalistic delivery of what Alice describes as “quite weird, idiosyncratic things to say about anchovies” blew her away. There’s also sweet talk about Tom Meeten’s trust in his long-standing collaborator for his brief cameo sequence, love for the inimitable Leila Hoffman and Kate Dickie, and the startling revelation that all of Jo Hartley’s scenes (the biggest supporting role in the film) were shot in a day, meaning the actress had to perform a whole character arc in just a few hours.
Overall, what you’ve got here is a commentary that can be explaining how films like Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible influenced the production one minute, to the less glamorous revelation that a heavily pregnant woman had to roll about in, as she puts it, “a lot of different Cardiff people’s wee” to get the right shot. The team took their task deadly seriously, but it’s also clear that they had a lot of fun doing so, and the result is a film that they can all be proud of, and an audio commentary that is worth every penny.
So while it would have been amazing to see more on-set footage, some of the alternate takes and deleted footage, and heck, maybe even Alice’s 2010 short film My Old Baby (made with Jacqueline Wright and co-starring Rich Fulcher and Sarah Kendall) could have been popped on there as a fun, vaguely related extra that would have been easy to clear, what we have here is a disc which fits the current trend for minimal, essential extra features, and leaves you wanting more, instead of less. And if Prevenge has proved one thing, it’s that Alice Lowe is going to do so much more…