“Baby Knows What to Do”: Furious Motherhood in Prevenge (2016)

Horror movies have a strange fixation with motherhood. Not just pregnancy, the very idea of being a mother and the sacrifices, sometimes literal, that involves. Mrs. Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980), Norma Bates from Psycho (1960), and of course, Rosemary from the titular Rosemary’s Baby (1968). While the latter is perhaps the most obvious tie between horror and motherhood, each of these films ask us to consider both what it means to be a mother and to have a mother. These movies arrive from a long-standing criticism of motherhood imagery, this notion that being a mother comes naturally and that giving birth is some sort of glowy process, rather than a blood stained and stressful taboo, one rarely depicted accurately in cinema. I think the criticism in Rosemary’s Baby was born from the growing women’s movement of the time, as it re-examines our relationship to traditional imagery and the problematic, political, and patriarchal connotation those had. Rosemary’s Baby restores horror and fear to pregnancy, the kind once whispered between midwives but never shown to audiences. That said, rewatching Rosemary’s Baby, especially considering the terrible allegations against director Roman Polanski, is deeply troubling. This brings me to a contemporary commentary, one specifically fixated on pregnancy and motherhood, not just the act of giving birth.

Prevenge focuses on a recently widowed mother-to-be with a very strange and articulate baby. Her daughter, still inside her belly, whispers and compels her to murder those responsible for the sudden death of her husband. The film follows Ruth as she brutally entraps and then murders her husband’s climbing companions, as it is later revealed that he fell to his death after he was cut loose from a 7-person climbing expedition.

Although Prevenge never quotes nor mentions Rosemary’s Baby, or any other horror mother movie, the presence of these films is undeniable. Director Alice Lowe cites Rosemary’s Baby in several interviews about the film, where she explains that her film was born from these earlier classics. Her film is like the monstrous progeny of these works. But it also comes as a rejection of the bloodied mother image, like the Bride in Kill Bill and the traumatized Rosemary. Prevenge isn’t satisfied with the way mothers are treated in these respected films, and so it presents a different and more (literal) introspective version of motherhood.

“Children these days are really spoilt. It’s like, ‘mummy I want a PlayStation! Mummy, I want you to kill that man!’”

The film’s horror comedy nature allows it to critique and parody these classic horror films while still following their formulas. The film is very aware of what it is being actively compared to, everything from horror movies to sappy lighthearted films. Its protagonist is often labeled through this lens, as people call her “mummy” at the clinic, even before she has given birth, and everyone else makes constant assumptions because of her pregnancy. However, because Ruth is a violent figure, these labels become contradictory and ridiculous.

Prevenge is obsessed with double meanings, and that is reflection of its doubled protagonist (mother and baby). As an example, different people try to give Ruth advice about being a mother, but that advice becomes slightly warped in the context of the film. During a session with her midwife, the midwife tells Ruth that “Baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you what to do”. The midwife meant to suggest that Ruth’s body knows how to respond to the baby, but Ruth hears that the baby will literally tell her what to do and how. The midwife doesn’t catch this double meaning, so when Ruth responds with “I think she already does”, the midwife just assumes that they are on the same page. Moments like this present an unusual combination, a blend of maternal and serial instinct. Ruth is different than your traditional killer, as she has a conscience and a mothering impulse. She kisses all her victims on the forehead just before she leaves, and it’s not a sustained or sexualized thing, it’s just a little peck, as though her victims are leaving for school. She also behaves like a mother in their house, cleaning up and even chastising her victims for not tidying more or for being rude. In one scene, Ruth is about to kill DJ Dan when his elderly mother suddenly appears, disoriented and wanting to do laundry. Dan leads her back to her room in a sort of abrupt fashion, which Ruth dislikes. After she kills Dan, his mother wanders out again, but this time, Ruth leads her back to the bedroom and tucks her in. She assures the mother that she will start the laundry for her, and she even pretends to be the woman’s child. Ruth doesn’t say these things just to keep the woman calm, it’s genuine. She starts the laundry and washes her knife before leaving the murder scene. She acts as though she is already a traditional mother. The best way I can describe it is by comparing her to a background feature shown during the bar scene. While she talks to Dan, we see a neon blue gummy bear light with a crude plastic axe lodged in its head. This combination of sweet and death best summarizes Ruth. She lures people in with a false sense of security, as they assume that a pregnant woman is harmless and sympathetic. And then she slits their throat or smashes their head in.

“You’re insane.”
“I am a working mother!”

Prevenge has an interesting relationship with violence. There is a lot of death in the film, but we don’t really see the violence, just some kicking feet or a few short moments of blood. It treats giving birth in the same way, as we get this brief C-section shot that only lasts a few seconds. These moments suggest that the film is more interested in before and after, not the process itself. In other words, it’s more interested in life and death, not the process in-between. So, we see the victim before they die and then after. We also see Ruth pregnant and then as a mother. The moments between are not important.

The film’s most violent scene comes when Ruth murders Ella, her first female victim. She treats this victim differently, as she usually tries to get close and lure people to her. In this scene, Ruth and Ella are spread between a long conference table until Ruth eventually gets up, kisses Ella on the lips (another difference), and then smashes her head on the table before slitting her throat. It initially seems like Ruth’s different approach has something to do with gender, but I think it’s also because of Ella’s career focused view on motherhood. Ella suggests that becoming too attached to the baby will be bad for Ruth’s career, and she refuses to hire Ruth because she is pregnant. Ruth doesn’t want the job, so why does she care so much about the way Ella treats her and her unborn? Ella arranges to meet Ruth at night when everyone else is gone. This suggests that Ella doesn’t want her workers to see Ruth or to feel sympathetic, and so she hides Ruth and her pregnancy from everyone. I think that is why Ruth is especially angry, it has nothing to do with her husband’s death. It’s because Ella thinks being pregnant is a weakness. This explains why Ruth toys with Ella’s body, spinning her around in the chair and twisting her words back at her, noting “I’ve had to make some really harsh cuts. It’s a cutthroat world you know”. Once again, we get this double meaning, as Ella used these words to justify not hiring Ruth, but now we see how literally cutthroat this world is.

Something similar happens with Ruth’s other female victim, a marathon runner named Len. Ruth suggests that this woman is a sheep because she is obsessed with following workout instructors, and she puts her body and exercise regimen above everyone else. Len puts up more of a fight than Ruth’s other victims, but ultimately, she makes certain assumptions about Ruth because of this maternal image. After she kicks Ruth in the stomach, Ruth falls to the ground crying, and the marathon runner kneels and begins apologizing. This gives Ruth the perfect opportunity to stab Len in the stomach, the same area where Ruth was kicked. Len became too comfortable with Ruth and assumed too much. She was so caught up in her own head, her own biases, that she couldn’t see what was closing in on her.

“You have absolutely no control of your body or mind anymore. She does.”

We discover at the end of the film that Ruth’s baby is completely normal and that Ruth was telling herself to murder people. This means that Ruth was never compelled by her baby and that she is ultimately responsible for the murders. Her pregnancy therefore isn’t the most horrifying thing in the film, she is. Ruth’s hatred is about more than her dead husband. She hates selfish people, those who put themselves above others. That is the case with each of her victims, well, except her last victim- the father-to-be. Once Ruth realizes that her daughter had nothing to do with her murderous obsession, she embraces her selfish nature. Earlier, she could justify her actions by assuming that her daughter and husband want her to kill. Without that selfless goal, Ruth becomes untethered. This explains why Ruth descends into a full fury mode at the end of the film, as she is no longer tied to anyone and becomes as unremorseful as her victims.

We see the Furies multiple times in the film, and I don’t mean fury like an emotion, I mean the literal Furies from Greek mythology. At one point, Ruth watches the film Crime Without Passion (1934), which includes a scene where a man is driven mad by the Furies, a trio of women who torment and hunt the wicked. The Furies appear in multiple myths, but most commonly in myths where children kill parents, or vice versa. It is their job to torture people before they die, and then afterwards in the underworld. The Fury scene from Crime Without Passion appears multiple times in Prevenge, and eventually Ruth dresses up as a Fury for Halloween, as she goes to kill her final victim. However, her version of the Fury is slightly different, as she draws this massive toothy smile which reaches across her jaw and covers her unsmiling mouth. It is like the image of a woman being told to smile, and the gritty and angry sound that comment stirs. Ruth’s daughter also makes this comparison, as she chants to her mother, “I am Fury. I am in you. Look Mummy”. Again, we get this double meaning, as the child is both a Fury and fury, the emotion.

Ruth fully transforms into a Fury after she realizes that her daughter is perfectly normal and that the evil inside her will not go away. She abandons her daughter at the hospital, kissing her once on the forehead as she does her victims, and then leaving to kill again. When she finds her ‘final’ victim, he is standing on the edge of the cliff where her husband died, and he seems remorseful, more so than the others. Ruth initially sees her husband standing instead of Tom (her victim), but once she recognizes him, and he recognizes her, it is too late. She goes to kill her husband, but also this stand-in. Ruth raises her arms in the same pose as the Furies in Crime Without Passion and elongates her mouth into a silent shriek before the film cuts to black. Ruth is no longer a mother, no longer human, she is the very emotion and drive of Fury.

“You would not have done it without me.”

About midway in the film, Ruth lays on her hotel bed as it begins to shake. This happens earlier in the film too, as her unseen neighbors are having sex. The first time it happens, Ruth’s baby suggests that the couple are being very insensitive, and it almost seems like Ruth might go and kill them. But she doesn’t, and the second time it happens, she has a different response. She stands up on the bed and puts her head to the wall, her palms outstretched on the wallpaper. It isn’t sexual, but its certainly maternal. Her pose and the moving wall make it seem as though the wall is kicking like a baby. This implies that Ruth’s environment is maternal, that everything she sees and feels comes from her maternal instincts, however murderous those are. Take for instance the title of the film: Prevenge. The title warps the term revenge into pregnant or pregnancy, which suggests that pregnancy is all-encompassing. It surrounds everything, even the very terms used to describe the film. And again, we get this double meaning as Prevenge is equally focused on revenge and pregnancy. Double meaning is even found in the film Ruth is obsessed with: Crime Without Passion. That cannot be said of Ruth, as everything she does comes from a strong emotional place, a passion, and so we get these contradictory labels.

Labels bring me again to Rosemary’s Baby as although the two protagonists mirror one another, with seemingly demonic offspring, they have totally different conclusions. Rosemary is deceived by everyone around her, to the point where she has no idea who is lying, who will help her, or what is happening. Her husband and neighbors use the image of motherhood against her, to discredit her. They suggest that her anxiety is the result of hormones and other naturally occurring things, when in fact, Rosemary has been raped by the devil because of her neighbors. Prevenge moves in the opposite direction, as Ruth deceives everyone else through these maternal images, as people assume she is helpless and a little sad, instead of an unhinged murderer. The films also end with a different position on motherhood. Rosemary realizes she was right but still chooses to stay with her baby, the literal anti-Christ, because that is what a good mother should do. Ruth leaves her baby because she realizes how destructive her version of motherhood is, and how she is the anti-Christ figure, not the baby. It feels like Ruth is the kind of woman who has watched Rosemary’s Baby too many times, and that is why she gets this strange baby voice in her head. She is the one actively combining horror tropes with motherhood.

When Ruth eventually walks away from motherhood, its unclear what she will do. It is even unclear whether any of her victims were guilty or if they were just in a terrible situation. Ruth’s final victim explains that her husband sacrificed himself to save the group, that he told the instructor to cut the rope. Ruth can’t handle that. She doesn’t want reality; she doesn’t want to accept that her husband was going to leave her or that he sacrificed himself. This final shriek, however, suggests that Ruth is no longer logical. She is an emotion and a myth, and she has embraced the supernatural horror which was always inside her, not in her baby.