When discussing the trailer for Ma, the horror movie starring Octavia Spencer, I said, “Even if this turns out more camp than high art—a real possibility with a Blumhouse production—I’m cool with it.” Well, guess what. Ma is not camp. It’s certainly not high art. It turns out, Ma is straight, B-movie schlock. It is pure schlock that works entirely because of Octavia Spencer’s committed performance, with a dash of help from Juliette Lewis in a solid supporting turn. Nothing about Ma deviates from expectations—it is exactly what it seems. It’s a B horror movie that is mostly okay thanks to Octavia Spencer, who throws herself into the role of “Ma” with way more commitment than the mediocre script (courtesy comedy writer Scotty Landes) deserves.
Ma might have benefited from another director. Spencer reunites with The Help director, Tate Taylor, who does not show any particular flair for the kind of low-fi filmmaking that the horror genre thrives on (contemporary directors with horror flair include Jordan Peele, James Wan, and Jennifer Kent). Tate’s direction is serviceable, but Ma is flat and uninteresting to look at—there was more tension in the pie scene in The Help than there is in the entirety of Ma. Perhaps a more genre-sympathetic director could have wrung a little more drama and nerves from Ma. As is, the movie is only one hundred minutes and you will definitely check your watch at least once.
But Spencer is great, as always, as Sue Anne, a veterinary assistant who buys a bunch of high school kids some alcohol, hooking into their lives when she discovers that they are the offspring of her own high school tormentors. The kids in Ma are a solid group, distinguishing themselves by not being typically obnoxious horror movie children. They come across as average teens, and new girl Maggie (Diana Silvers) is the only one that passes as interesting as an individual. The story is centered on Maggie and her mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis), who is returning to her hometown in defeat, teen daughter in tow. Maggie and Erica are the Gilmores without the safety net, and Lewis makes a little hay with Erica’s humiliation at returning home after failing to “make it” in California.
Rounding out the adult cast are Luke Evans and Missi Pyle—who deserves SO MUCH MORE than these toxic bimbo roles—and Allison Janney as an overworked vet who has no time for Sue Anne’s daydreaming. The adults are much more interesting than the teens, which is a problem as we don’t see nearly as much of them as we do Maggie and her pals, who begin partying at Sue Anne’s house as a kind of teen-drinking safe zone. They start calling Sue Anne “Ma”, and for a minute it seems like this is the solution to their small-town boredom on a Saturday night. But Sue Anne quickly overextends her hospitality, and transplant Maggie, who comes from a big city, realizes something is not right with their hostess.
The biggest issue with Ma is that Sue Anne’s instability is telegraphed from the very beginning. There is no question that she is going to go off on these kids, and we know with 100% certainty Maggie is right to be suspicious. It’s hard not to reimagine this movie with a little more subtlety, in which Spencer’s performance is less obviously bonkers and more grounded in the ways in which we can misread and misinterpret one another in social situations. Big city suspicion against small town hospitality is a natural breeding ground for those kinds of communication misfires, and the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Sue Anne and Maggie would work a lot better if we didn’t know for sure Maggie is right.
But Ma is what it is, and so Spencer is left to have as much fun as possible with Sue Anne’s many quirks and tells, and she plays the inevitable heel turn with a kind of prophetic solemnity, as though Sue Anne never even once saw another outcome for these children she took under her wing, once she learned who their parents are. (The movie does unwind Sue Anne’s reason for hating her former classmates, which is a horror movie unto itself.) We can wish for a slightly better movie that makes more use of its talented cast, but what we have is a perfectly serviceable, if forgettable, starring vehicle for Octavia Spencer. I’m never mad to see her get a paycheck.