Ma: Uneven Thriller Wastes Octavia Spencer

Last year proved to be a busy one for Blumhouse Productions. Major theatrical and limited releases included Insidious: The Last Key, Truth or Dare, Upgrade, The First Purge, Cam, and the Halloween ‘re-quel’. Comparatively, 2019 has been a relatively quiet year. Earlier this year, Blumhouse released Glass and Happy Death Day 2U. Unfortunatley, Universal Pictures pulled the Blumhouse-produced The Hunt following an errant Tweet from a certain president. To date, Blumhouse’s only other major theatrical release, Ma, quietly amassed over $45 million at the box office on a $5 million budget in spite of mixed reviews.

Synopsis

High schooler Maggie Thompson and her friends are stuck in a small town where there’s not much to do. Like most teenagers, they try to buy alcohol underage and find places to party. When they meet lonely Sue Ann Ellington, the teens convince the middle-aged woman to buy them booze. In turn, Sue Ann invites the kids to use her basement to party in. Soon Sue Ann, who wants the teens to call her ‘Ma’, is hosting parties on an almost nightly basic. But things begin to dangerously escalate as Sue Ann’s troubled past catches up with her. Her seemingly kind gesture turns into obsession.

Ma is a Surprisingly Flat Thriller

All the promotional materials for Ma promised a tense thrill-ride for horror fans. Octavia Spencer’s involvement as the titular character was the icing on the cake. Yet in spite of its promise, Ma is surprisingly flat thriller that wouldn’t feel too out of place among 90’s psychological thrillers like Sliver, Pacific Heights, or The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. Though there are plenty of opportunities for suspense, Ma is pretty light on actual suspense. Director Tate Taylor struggles to even muster up a decent jump scare. To some extent, Ma suffers from poor pacing. Things happen, and then not much happens for quite a while. But some of the problem stems from Ma’s story.

Blumhouse Thriller Can’t Decide What Kind Of Movie It Wants to Be

Scotty Landes’ screenplay assembles a strange mix of movie subgenres that don’t always coalesce. For most of the movie, Ma is not really horror. Instead, Ma feels like a mix of late 80’s and early 90’s psychological thrillers and the standard ‘social outcast‘ revenge movie. In fact, if you assembled Sue Ann’s high school flashbacks into one extended sequence, Ma isn’t that different from just about any bully revenge movie. It’s like Carrie or Christine, minus the supernatural elements. And the scares.

Scotty Landes’ screenplay assembles a strange mix of movie subgenres that don’t always coalesce.

Occasionally, Ma dips into the horror genre. And it’s these moments where the movie gets interesting. Taylor inserts some genuinely disturbing and uneasy moments into the movie. Strange bits like ‘Ma’s’ family photo at the climax captures the tone the movie should have aimed for from the start. Unfortunately, these unique moments are interspersed across far more frequently occurring thriller tropes. As a result, Ma is more forgettable than lingering.

Octavia Spencer Carries Ma On Her Shoulders

As uneven as it is, Ma would be a disaster if not for Octavia Spencer. In fact, Spencer’s performance is really the only highlight of the movie. As Sue Ann, or ‘Ma’, Spencer is a compelling, tragic villain and victim. The talented actress invests what’s really a thinly written character with a range of emotions. Specifically, Spencer convincingly balances out desperate loneliness with intimidating menace. There’s a manic energy around her performance that prompts a range of emotions. Spencer makes you feel uncomfortable, sad, and uneasy.

As Sue Ann, or ‘Ma’, Spencer is a compelling, tragic villain and victim.

No one else in Ma really registers. On the adult side, Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans are just kind of in the movie. Arguably, Ma gives Lewis a little more to do, but Evans isn’t asked to do much in the thriller. Allison Janey is criminally wasted in a ‘nothing’ role. The younger cast are bland and almost indistinguishable from one another. Only McKaley Miller stands out among her peers with an energetic performance. To be fair to the young cast, Landes’ screenplay is the likely culprit, not the performances themselves.

Ma is a Strangely Lacklustre Effort

Neither offensively awful nor particularly good, Ma is a pretty unremarkable thriller. Outside of Octavia Spencer’s performance, there’s nothing to really recommend about this Blumhouse movie. Credit to the marketing team for somehow cobbling together a trailer that made Ma look like ‘edge of your seat’ stuff. In the end, Ma is an occasionally strange movie that’s largely content to go through the motions of a bland, early 90’s psychological thriller.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C+

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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