Producer Jason Blum and his filmmaking shingle Blumhouse have made a name for themselves in the horror movie space by consistently delivering scares to grateful audiences and box office returns to grateful investors. The formula is simple: keep the budget low and the action high; a solid script and impressive cast are both a bonus that only help pad the bottom line.
With over twenty titles listed as in progress on IMDb, Ma (directed by Tate Taylor) is the latest theatrical release in a veritable horror movie factory, and it fits so well into Blum’s formula that it almost doesn’t matter how wacky the whole thing is by the third act. It’s going to make money, and it’s going to be a fun ride for anyone who buys a ticket.
Octavia Spencer (a national treasure, let’s be honest) stars as Ma, as the teens in the film come to call her. Real name Sue Ann, she’s a vet’s assistant leading a fairly lonely life in her big home on the outskirts of town. Before we ever meet Sue Ann, we get to know Maggie (Diana Silvers, Glass, Booksmart), new in town after her mom Erica (Juilette Lewis) moves them back to where she grew up. Maggie starts at the same high school Erica attended and quickly falls in with a clique of cool kids, including Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo) and Darrell (Dante Brown) who spend their time drinking, getting high and hanging out at the abandoned rock piles apparently left behind as the Rust Belt disappeared.
Written by Scotty Landes (making his feature film writing debut), the various connections and backstories throughout are both fittingly specific and fairly easy to follow, meaning as the plot develops and truths come out, we understand all that’s at stake. As a whole, it all comes dangerously close to being overcomplicated, but in the end it’s better than the alternative, a gory, bloody takedown just for the shock of it. At least here, the plot devices weave all the various narrative elements together to some degree, however absurd.
The teens meet Ma while hanging out in front of a local liquor store trying to get someone over 21 to buy them booze; Sue Ann agrees and soon befriends the group, inviting them over to party in her basement, where they can be safe…and under her watchful eye. The first few nights at Ma’s are a blast, and soon the whole school is coming over for parties she fuels with loud music and plenty of alcohol. But all is not as it seems with Ma, and flashbacks give us a glimpse into her own high school days, bullied by those who are now the parents of the kids partying at her place.
The first two acts of Ma are essentially there to get us to the final act, where all the build-up pays off in silly, thrilling sequences that are as batshit crazy as they are entertaining. Instead of focusing on one victim on which to inflict her revenge, Sue Ann spreads the rage around, devolving into a rampage that holds no prisoners. Some of her kills are laughable, some are downright psycho, and some are just there to keep the gore coming. By the time Maggie and her crew muster the courage to fight back, Ma’s fate is essentially an afterthought; we’ve had all our fun by now, and films like this aren’t hugely concerned with polished narratives.
Tate directs the film with a fun flair, sometimes over-using creative camera perspectives that have us peeking around walls or looking down on the action. It would all be a bit much in a more refined film, but it’s perfectly playful here, reminding us that this one is not about taking things all too seriously. And of course, Spencer is a joy to watch as she indulges in Ma’s worst tendencies; her ability to flip between doe-eyed sweetness and sheer fury and evil is uncanny. She’s as deserving as any actress of her caliber to savor a role that allows her to completely let loose, frivolous as it may be. Chances are most of Ma‘s limited budget (just $5 million) went to her salary, and for Blumhouse and audiences, it’s money well spent.