We recently went and saw the horror movie Mama with some friends. Will and I have long thought that part of enjoying movies is managing expectations. If you go into a movie thinking it will be the greatest movie ever, as one of my friends once heinously and erroneously described Jurassic Park 2, you are going to be disappointed. When your expectations are so high, there are very few movies that can live up to it. When you go into a movie with low or no expectations, it is easy to be impressed by the movie you see. Will and I had no idea what to expect from Mama. We don’t have cable, we don’t watch television, and other than a subscription to Entertainment Weekly and what streams on Netflix we rarely have any idea when movies are coming out or what they are about.
Going in with no expectations was a really good thing as Mama was a great horror flick. I am not saying it was a great film or great art or anything like that. It is a horror movie, it is a popcorn movie, it is entertaining, but it is a flick not a film.
That said, it was a superb flick. It starts off with a man killing his wife, taking his two daughters on the run with him, and then having a car accident as he drove like the madman he was in the snow. This accident breaks the glasses of his oldest daughter (as someone who wore glasses from kindergarten on, this is always something I find distressing in films – not being able to see anything but blurry images is spooky in the best of times) and the youngest daughter is still very much a baby. He takes his children into the woods where he finds a creepy, seemingly abandoned cabin. He starts a fire in the fireplace, as it is snowy and cold, and then, in tears and clearly unhinged, he pulls out the gun and aims it at his eldest daughters head. Something in the cabin takes exception to this and kills him before he has a chance to kill his daughter. The supernatural creature of the film has more of moral compass than this douchebag. The creature even gives the girls some food. They start to think of her as Mama.
The opening credits are creepy as hell, too, as they are children’s drawings, but really the drawings of feral children. They tell the story of how these two little girls lived out in the wilderness, on their own for the next several years, and they are unsettling at best.
The girls are eventually found and the youngest is pretty feral, but the oldest daughter remembers speech fairly quickly and is able to somewhat be integrated back into the real world. The girls are taken in by their father’s brother and girlfriend. Their uncle has spent all of his money and time searching for them and clearly cares a great deal about them. His girlfriend, Anabel, cares a great deal about him and is thus supportive. Annabel is a great character. She plays in a band, she rejoices early in the film when a pregnancy test comes up negative, and she is what I would imagine a Riot Grrl grew up to be. She doesn’t really want to do the whole mom thing, but she does it anyway for many reasons. One of those reasons eventually becomes her love for the girls.
In discussing the film after seeing it, one of the things that Will brought up is many of the horror elements had been in other movies. There are the scary bits where something unexpected happens and you scream or jump. There is a scene where the only light is from a camera, so it is just flashes of bright then darkness which can be used to scary effect. Many of the scary scenes are not terribly original, but they are put together in a pleasant way, and the story itself is pretty creepy. There is one scene where the youngest daughter is playing with someone in her room with a blanket. You see Annabel folding and putting away laundry, and assume she is playing with her sister, then her sister walks by Annabel, and you realize she is playing with Mama. It is a spectacularly creepy moment in a flick that has tons of creepy moments.
I figured that the uncle would be the hero or main character in the story, but really he is a bit useless. He gets hospitalized due to the titular antagonist of the film pretty early on in the movie, and while Annabel protests to him that she is not cut out to handle two emotionally damaged and somewhat feral children, because she love shim she takes care of these two kids while he is away. Annabel is the hero of this story and the antagonist, Mama, is also somewhat heroic. She kept the children alive in the woods, she loves the children, and she kept their father from killing them. The sad part is she is also crazy and supernatural, which is never a good combination.
I doubt many people who see Mama are going to think that it is a feminist horror flick. For me, being raised on horror movies where women were so victimized that they could not even run away from the bad guy without tripping and falling down with a sprained ankle, it is nice to see women as both the protagonist and antagonist. I also really liked the Scream series of movies for this reason – the women kicked ass. Annabel isn’t a fool. She doesn’t trip and fall over her own feet. When she realizes that the psychiatrist treating the girls knows more about the supernatural entity than she does, she goes to confront him, and steals all of his files without a qualm. Annabel is badass in a very real, human way. Meanwhile, the men in the film are either evil or fairly stupid. Seriously, it is not a good idea to hunt for a supernatural entity alone, in the dark, without telling anyone where you are going – I hated it when they had women doing it and it is not any better having men do it. I know you need to up the body count but when you do it through character stupidity, it makes me root for the villain.
Even the supernatural entity who the children call Mama is sympathetic when you get her backstory.
The overall story in Mama is a good and creepy one. There is no gore, there is no nudity. The main characters are women who are not stupid or useless or screaming or dying horribly. That alone puts it a step above most other horror flicks. In talking about the movie with Will, one of the things we both liked is that this is not a revolutionary, feminist movie. Most people are not even going to notice or care that the main characters are heroic women. The movie just has the women behave as real people would behave. Believing that women are real people is pretty feminist, though, so I am giving it that label.