Our horror film series this week turns away from the body horror of “Raw” and moves into the updated Greek revenge tragedy as comedy slasher film of writer-director Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge” (2016). While the movie starts with a bit of a slow-burn, once the plot gets going there’s definitely a lot going on here. You’ll want to watch and listen closely to make sure you catch lines like those the unborn child of our aptly named protagonist Ruth (also played by Lowe) utters while they are running away from one of their intended victims: “He hath slipped from the net, whom we chased: he hath ‘scaped us who should be our prey.”
If you don’t recognize it, that’s a line from the Aeschylus play Orestes, about the son of Agamemnon who avenges his father’s death by slaughtering both the murderer, Aegisthus (his mother’s lover) and also Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife and Orestes’s mother. According to ancient law, Orestes is justified in killing the man who murdered his father but faces trial and possible death for murdering his own mother which is considered a violation of family ties.
For as bloody and violent as their literature tended to be, the Ancient Greeks would probably have considered contemporary horror movies obscene, or άσεμνος, a word that literally means “off stage” in reference to the preference in Greek theatre for keeping explicit acts of violence out of the audience’s view. Interestingly, the Greek’s had no such qualms about permitting nudity and raw sexuality on stage. But the word actually comes to modern English via Latin and then French. Applying the notion of obscenity to explicit sex doesn’t appear until the early modern era. Interestingly, our word “pornography” followed a similar historical route, deriving from the Greek for “writing about whores.”
But enough about the Ancient Greeks.
It suffices for us to be aware that “Prevenge” might look like nothing more than a updated 70’s slasher flick, but it also comes to us from a long lineage of philosophical explorations about the morality of avenging the murder of a parent, a theme which has also been prominent on the English stage. (Hamlet, I’m looking at you.)
As you might expect, “Prevenge,” with its punning title, examines the notion of revenge from a prenatal perspective as protagonist Ruth sets about killing off the people responsible for the death of her baby’s father, who died in a mountain climbing “accident.” (Okay, another quick aside here: in Greek, the name Orestes means basically “a guy who stands on a mountain.)
Ruth believes she hears the voice of her unborn child ordering her to commit the murders, prompting her to be “ruthless” in another provocative turn of phrase. So, Ruth launches into her murder spree secure in the conviction that she’s justified because people are inherently evil. And, after all, doesn’t having a blood-thirsty baby urging her to kill actually bear out that assertion?