The Obsessive Mother-Like Figure trope in horror films has finally received a version of the character that is seasoned in Blumhouse’s 2019 psychological-thriller Ma. Directed by Tate Taylor and starring veteran actress Octavia Spencer, Ma follows a group of teenagers who befriend a lonely middle-aged woman who allows them to party in her basement, only for startling and crazy things to happen. Ma came about because Octavia Spencer was tired of not being offered a lead role and director Tate Taylor, who worked with Spencer on The Help, said he wanted to create something that was “f****d up and MAAAAN, did they DELIVER!
Kids, drugs are bad, MMMKAY!
This movie will relate to people who grew up in a small town the most. Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) and her mother Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis) have moved to Erica’s hometown in Ohio after Maggie’s father cheated on her mother. Being the new girl at her high school, Maggie befriends a group of friends that just like to party and get drunk. If you’ve ever been to a gas station then you’ve more than likely experienced some random underage teen asking if you will buy cigarettes or alcohol for them. Maggie and her friends are that kid.
The problem is they asked the wrong person. Kids, this is why you shouldn’t talk to strangers. They ask what turns out to be a lonely sociopathic middle-aged veterinary technician named Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first glance Sue Ann seems normal but she is far from that. She became obsessed with Maggie and her group of friends right off the bat. She invites them to come to her house and drink in her basement. One of the teens gave her the nickname Ma and her place became the go-to spot for the kids to drink, party and cut loose. The only rule that Ma has is for the kids to keep the party in the basement and not venture upstairs, y’know, respect her house.
Of course in this type of movie someone has to go not follow the rules and go upstairs. Maggie and Haley (McKaley Miller) have to be the ones that go and investigate but when they hear strange noises coming from another they get creeped out and don’t want to go back to Ma’s. Haley even goes far enough to tell the rest of her classmates not to go back there and they put the kibosh on future party attempts.
Yet, for some reason, the script calls for the kids to go back to Ma’s for the most absurd reasons, even after finding out that Ma was stealing from them and noticing that she was off her rocker. The great thing about this movie is that the script is B-level but the direction and acting elevates past the things that are holding it back. To the film’s defense there is a reason why these kids would make such a foolish decision.
During the film’s third act, when the horror aspect picks up, Diane Silvers shines as the Final Girl trope. Even Ma comments on her doey eyes which are perfect for expressing the fear that is racing through her mind as she’s tied up to a dog collar watching her friends being tormented.
Another thing about this movie that made it enjoyable was that the parents of these teenagers cared about their child. Erica is a passive-aggressive mother for the first two acts of the film and it’s completely understandable because she and her daughter have just moved and they’re going through some things. Once Erica finds out about Ma, giving her daughter drinks and a place to party, she does some parenting and tells Maggie to stay away from Ma and confronts Ma to stay away from her daughter. Maggie being the rebellious teen that she ends up going back to Ma’s house anyway but once Erica finds out she curses up a storm. This small scene establishes a lot because there are too manyfilms in the horror genre that make the parents complete idiots.
Don’t Let Me Drink Alone
What makes Ma stand out in comparison to the unseasoned version of the psychotic mother-like stalker thriller is Octavia Spencer’s acting and the film is not taking itself too seriously. When one of the teens gets too mouthy with Ma she pulls a gun out on them and things become tense for the character and those watching the film, yet Ma laughs this off and quips with “Do you think I’m Madea or something,” which releases the tension. Sue Ann keeps that thaaang on her.
Ma is definitely campy and there are moments that don’t make sense or are just presented too conveniently for the plot, especially when the film delivers Sue Ann’s backstory. Sue Ann never left the town the film was set in and when she was in high school the students played a cruel prank – and this prank was VERY MESSED UP – on her. Turns out the main group of teenagers that we’ve seen throughout the film are the children of the kids that picked on Sue Ann in high school. Before this is revealed in the film you can tell that things are headed this way.
Even knowing that twist was coming, it didn’t hurt the film because of the strength of Spencer’s performance. She’s everything you would want in a horror villain, creepy, mysterious, quick-witted and terrifying. She killed one character with her car and it got a laugh out of me. By knowing when to and when not to take itself seriously, Ma is a film that audiences who see movies with a group of friends would love.
Spencer said she took the role because she was tired of not being offered lead roles in films and if the movie doesn’t offer her those opportunities then nothing will. This was her LeBron James moment and the script was the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and although horror’s rarely get Oscar nominations, I hope she gets one for this.
Having a smaller budget worked in this film’s favor too. Instead of going out of the way and trying to create something scary, the minimalist approach with the mask pictured below did the job fine, and other studios should take notes.
One thing that should be stated about Ma and the people behind the scenes, is that 2019 has been such a marvelous year for black women in horror and Blumhouse has produced two wonderful films with strong black leads. When Octavia Spencer was pitched this role, she asked if she was going to die first and it turns out she was the last death in the film. Progress.
This film isn’t a perfect film and with a stronger script or a couple of revisions then it would get a higher rating but I was never bored and the pacing always kept me interested in what was going to happen next. In a messed up way, it was refreshing to finally see the shoe on the other foot when it comes to a stalker terrorizing their victims.
The undertones of seeing a black lady who was picked on by her peers in a predominately white town enact some type of revenge is something you do not see every day on the big screen. The film addresses race in a comedic way by having Ma paint the only other black person in the film, white:
If you’re looking for something fresh and original then give Ma a chance while it is still playing in theaters. Remember, don’t talk to strangers and don’t let her drink alone.
[All Mames Wey]
Ma was released in theaters on May 31, 2019
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