Ma is kind of trashy. But the good thing is that the movie knows it; just as director Tate Taylor knows it; and star Octavia Spencer knows it too, with the Oscar-winning actress giving a swing-for-the-fences performance that trods some of the same territory as Kathy Bates in Misery and other madcap portrayals of that ilk. Ma is not a great movie by any means, but it relishes its own tightrope walk between camp and horror, and is all the better for it. It will certainly ring the nostalgia bell for all of us who at one point or another in our teen years asked an adult to buy beer for us and our friends–and make us wonder if any of those folks might have more disturbed designs on us.
In the film, Spencer plays Sue Ann, a quiet, seemingly unassuming loner who lives and works as a veterinary assistant in a small Ohio town. One day she’s approached by a group of said teenagers, among them Maggie (Diana Silvers), who’s just moved to town with her newly divorced mom (Juliette Lewis). Sue Ann is reluctant at first, but relents and goes one step further: the kids can come drink safely in her basement. As long as one of them stays sober and nobody goes upstairs, it’s basically party time.
For Maggie and her friends, this is like finding a suitcase full of money, and before long word spreads and dozens of kids are showing up at Sue Ann’s house every night. But of course nothing lasts forever, and as “Ma” (as she tells the kids to call her) becomes more obsessive about having the kids spend time at her house, their natural inclination to back away means the party is over and the mayhem is about to begin.
Ma makes a half-hearted attempt to provide some sort of explanation and back story for Sue Ann’s descent into psychopathic behavior, having to do with her high school history, but anyone looking for any deeper understanding of mental illness or trauma is going to be sorely disappointed. That’s not necessarily a black mark against the film though, as this is a Blumhouse horror quickie, not Silver Linings Playbook, and kudos to the movie for not attempting to be socially sensitive in that regard (cue outraged think-pieces about the movie “shaming” trauma victims, as if that hasn’t been a staple of horror cinema for decades).
Spencer sinks her teeth into the role of Sue Ann with grisly relish, and Taylor lets her have at it with sadistic glee. Of course Taylor was also the filmmaker who had Spencer bake and feed someone a pie made out of shit in The Help, so it seems that these two old friends share the same perverse sense of humor. So does the film as a whole, for that matter: when Ma’s last 30 minutes goes off the rails in a rush of murders and mutilations, it’s all done with the joy of a 14-year-old watching his or her first gore movie.
Relative newcomer Silvers is an appealing enough presence, and she and Lewis strike up an easy rapport as a mother and daughter facing the world on their own. Lewis also makes more of her smallish role than is probably on the page, wanting (perhaps needing) to be a “cool” friend to her daughter but willing to put the hammer down when the situation requires it. Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, and an uncredited Allison Janney provide support that plays well within the movie’s broad tone.
Taylor directs in an uncluttered manner, and even if the story drags during the second act, Ma reminded me at times of a simple throwback to horror from the ’70s and ’80s, without necessarily copying the stylistic tics or visual signifiers of those eras. “Elevated” or “enhanced” horror this ain’t, and that’s what makes spending time in Ma’s basement kind of fun.
Ma is out in theaters on Friday May 31.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye