Michael and I were just sitting around on a slow Saturday afternoon, without much on the agenda. While horror movies tend to be night-time fare for us, the feeling of an afternoon movie on a warm June day just sort of says summer vacation (present summer vacation for me, imminent summer vacation for Michael), so we decided on a 12:10 showing of Ma. My excitement about the film was considerable, but my trepidation about the film regarded the possibility that all of the really shocking, provocative elements of the film may have already been showcased in the trailer – I thought. I was prepared – similar to the situation I experienced with Brightburn –to see a film that didn’t offer much beyond the preview attractions. And while it is true – we get a glimpse of a lot of gore before the movie – there’s so much more to the film than the previews indicate, and Octavia Spencer captures a complex, layered, troubled character with unquestionable perfection. It’s hard to call Ma the best horror movie of the spring, with gems like Us and Pet Sematary gracing the screen, but it can certainly compete. As a heads-up, I have all but given up on writing spoiler-free reviews, so my apologies, but spoilers will abound in this piece.
Sue Anne/ “Ma” (Octavia Spenser) runs into a group of teenagers looking to party outside of a liquor store. When one of the teenagers, Maggie (Diana Silvers) asks her to purchase booze, Sue Anne hesitates at first, then says “aw hell” and capitulates. What the film indicates to us immediately that the trailer didn’t is that Sue Anne is interested, right away, in this group of teenagers, and we learn soon enough that she went to high school with their parents and has a reason to desire revenge against the parents, against the kids, against someone – however demented, however twisted her notions of revenge are. And it is a twisted sort of revenge. “Ma” seems, at first, like a benign, fun-loving party-girl (except, well, a very awkwardly and uncomfortably adult party-girl chilling with sixteen-year-olds) but she morphs, throughout the film, into a character who is needy, highly idiosyncratic, dangerous and ultimately demented. The film takes us through this transformation, and finally (back) into Ma’s basement—the former party zone where she’ll eventually unravel her most malicious machinations.
Michael and I talked a lot about the movie afterward, but one thing we didn’t discuss was the theme of revenge. In Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women, I read a lot about the rape revenge trope, and at the time I wasn’t overly interested in that particular subgenre of horror. But as I consider revenge more broadly, it becomes, to me, a thematically appealing element of the horror film to look at. The question I would pose (a rather basic one) thus becomes: What can we learn (broadly speaking) from examining the revenge narrative in horror films? Revenge narratives are complex, because they contextualize monstrous actions and give us sympathy for people who commit horrific deeds –vengeful deeds often directed toward the original perpetrator, but often also directed toward innocent bystanders—the children of once-cruel parents, in this case. In Ma, Sue Anne is coerced into performing fellatio on one of the school’s “popular guys” when she’s a high-schooler. Given the context of the performance (the clear manipulation and deception surrounding the situation) it’s troubling enough on its own, but when Sue Anne exits the closet where the deed occurred, she realizes that the entire school is gathered around, listening to what she’s done. And the man in the closet is not the man she was expecting to encounter. The popular crowd has arranged, in that way, for her embarrassment. She leaves the scene, ashamed, and turns into an adult who has a host of troubling problems including a searing, pathological need to fit in coupled with a perpetual feeling of being, as she says at one point in the film, “on the outside looking in.”
It’s interesting, because I was talking to a friend yesterday; we both agreed that Malcolm X was right when he said that in situations where violence is enacted against blacks (by whites), blacks are justified in using violence to defend themselves. This friend assured me that I was following the beliefs of Islam by agreeing with her, because the Quran calls for such behavior; when someone wrongs you, they deserve the exact same wrong, in return (my friend is Muslim and has been teaching me more about the religion). I paused a minute, because as a pacifist in most situations and someone who tries to let things go or “live and let live,” I’m not sure I do believe in “an eye for an eye” at my core. Certainly, I don’t support the death penalty—and certainly, to be sure, Octavia Spenser’s retaliation doesn’t follow the “eye for an eye” standard. But I think no matter what we say, a lot of us do hold on to some notion of retributive justice’s correctness when approaching life situations, and revenge narratives tap into that belief in its correctness. Why does our sympathy for the wronged villain often make them less monstrous, make them even, a sort of anti-hero? Because when someone experiences horrendous physical or emotional/psychological trauma at the hands of another person, part of us expects them to retaliate, at least when we watch fiction. It’s just what human beings do, we think. And in the correct narrative context, we can even want them to retaliate, desire the bad guy, the “monster,” the person performing the monstrous behavior, to win. What it is about a narrative that prompts us to root for the villain, that even makes the villain less villainous, is another question entirely, but also one worth considering.
The interesting thing about revenge in this particular film is that before Ma enacts it, she’s an even more uncomfortable character than after she starts undertaking her vicious retaliations. We are used to the revenge trope, the archetype, so to speak, so we slip into it fairly comfortably when we see it in horror narrative. What is far less comfortable is seeing a middle-aged woman try, incredibly hard, to gain the attention, affection, and admiration of the teenagers for whom she initially purchases the liquor. Ma doesn’t want attention and affection the way a parent does; on the contrary, she tries to meet the kids on their level, to become one of them. It’s less uncomfortable, for example, when she invites them to party in her basement; she reasons, after all, that it’s safer than driving around drinking. She seems at least sort of “motherly” in this brief part of the film, and we have some context for such a character-type. But when she performs other actions, when she tries to please the kids by buying a table for beer pong, for example, and uses the purchase to try to persuade them to come back to her basement, her neediness is sad and awkward. Such discomfort creates a double-level of “weirdness” in the narrative: First, we’re uncomfortable seeing this adult woman trying so hard to befriend sixteen-year-olds, trying to please them and cater to their whims so that she can be one of the crowd. Second, despite the fact that some of her actions and pleas seem almost pathetic (a harsh word, but perhaps fitting) her outbursts and temper flares make her simultaneously creepy. While watching her neediness is thus uncomfortable, it’s doubly uncomfortable to witness Ma’s erratic behavior intermittently intercepting her neediness. This is part of the dynamic that makes Octavia Spencer a complex, nuanced character, but it also makes for an incredibly unsettling plot exposition – a degree of discomfort that, to me, is the marker of an excellent movie.
Ma actually becomes less uncomfortable to watch when, because more of the narrative is revealed and because different plot events provoke her, she becomes less centered on fitting in with the kids, and more strictly revenge-driven. As her desire to be liked—to be loved, even—dissipates and as she becomes a more insidious, more violent character, she becomes, on the one hand, perhaps more frightening, but on the other hand less unnerving; while Octavia Spenser’s role is highly original and the exact scenario creates a wholly unique character, a situation we haven’t seen before in horror, seeing a character driven by the need for revenge is all-too typical in horror. Annie Wilkes takes revenge on Paul Sheldon for literarily killing Misery Chastain and ending his run of novels in Misery. Freddie Kruger takes revenge on parents’ children for killing him in Nightmare on Elm Street. And, as previously mentioned, rape revenge films – films in which women try to retaliate against their rapists – are a staple subgenre of horror. It’s interesting, because in real life, we may be a little vindictive or guarded, but most of us don’t seek outright, physical revenge for wrongdoings. We seek justice, and there is an ostensibly understood but perhaps quite foggy difference between the two things. In movies though, we sometimes root for revenge, and we always recognize the desire for revenge when we see it; the presence of such an archetype makes the film more comfortable—if, ultimately, parts of it are less scary for that reason.
I’m currently trying to study phenomenology as it relates to narrative, and though it may seem extraneous or a bit repetitive, I’m interested in examining this phenomenon of the “familiar archetype” from an at least partially phenomenological perspective. According to Judith Butler’s version of Hegel’s phenomenology, we encounter “the other” – the person or thing who is not the self – and we at first fail to integrate that other into the self, although we ultimately do. As the other becomes part of the self, we reach a greater state of knowing and become more self-reflexive, a self with more depth and roundness. This is a really cursory overview of Butler/Hegel, but it suffices for these purposes. Film phenomenology is interesting because it posits that the narrative we encounter may be the “other” in question, and it asks how we integrate this “other” into our own personal understanding. Vivian Sobchak, for example, uses Merleau-Ponty as inspiration, and clearly situates the film narrative as an “other” – a sort of not-self that the self must encounter—when she states: “What we look at projected on the screen—whether Merleau-Ponty’s ‘the things, the waves, and the forests’ or only abstract lines and colors—addresses us as the perception of an anonymous yet present ‘other.’ And as we watch this expressive projection of an ‘other’s’ experience, we too, express our perceptive experience” (Sobchack 9).
I’m interested in pairing Butler with Sobchack here. I wonder if we could posit that integrating the narrative—emblematic of the perception and perspective of the other—into our own frame of reference is a different process if we encounter characters that disrupt tropes and archetypes, that break boundaries and create new ground for horror movies—or for movies in general. Assuredly, in all of my horror-viewing, though I have not integrated this particular narrative (Ma) into my experience, I’ve integrated the revenge archetype into my “self” and my scope of understanding. I haven’t seen revenge expressed by this “other” –this person who is not me—but I’ve seen revenge expressed by “other others” – other persons who aren’t me—and all expressions have similar characteristics. Such narratives are then, in a sense, already part of my self and contribute to my knowledge of self/self-reflexivity. When I see a less familiar archetype in a movie, it becomes, almost, “twice-othered” – the perception of the “other,” and an otherized (i.e. innately different) concept than what I’m used to. I must undergo some sort of change, then, when I integrate this twice-othered (person, thing, etc) into my field of experience. My affect—my discomfort—is a cause and consequence of that integration; I want to feel those feelings, that expanded self, so I seek such narrative moments, but I feel that discomfort because I’m integrating new archetypes into the self, new narrative moments into my frame of reference.
If this is true, then part of the discomfort that we may enjoy when we see a particularly innovative movie results from the fact that we must expand, as a self, to receive and integrate that narrative. At the same time, we may seek to watch such seemingly maddening movies because we innately desire that expansion, even at the expense of affective awkwardness. We may also make the case that genre-bending, archetype-breaking or archetype altering movies do more to expand our self-knowledge and self-reflexivity—to expand the self, generally speaking—if we choose to accept and integrate these “twice-othered” narrative moments. And all of that may be an overly complicated way of saying that the movie Ma is super cool because Octavia Spenser’s character is so original. I read an article that said Spenser took the role because it was an unusual (and thus innovative) role for a black woman—and it is. But it would be an equally unusual role for a white woman, or for a man (although roles for white women and men are more plentiful in Hollywood); the role would seem like a gem, an exciting opportunity for any actor, and I’m glad Spenser got to play it. At the end of the day, not every actor could have made me as uncomfortable in a sort of inherently discomforting role (so uncomfortable that I had to stop reaching for my popcorn out of a desire to anxiety-eat). Spenser does a brilliant job, and the film is definitely worth a trip to the theater.