Directed by Tate Taylor.
Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Missi Pyle.
A lonely woman opens up her home to a group of teenagers in search of a police-free place to drink booze, but it soon becomes clear she has an ulterior motive.
The Blumhouse niche is simple. They make broad, mass audience horror movies for as little money as possible, dealing in the ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ approach favoured by the token fruit and veg stall-style contestant on each series of The Apprentice. So there’s some bizarre alchemy at play in putting together Ma, which manages to come in at the studio’s standard $5m budget level despite the presence of not one, but two recent Oscar winners in the cast. Yes, this is a true example of what happens when thespian talent meets the pinnacle of genre trash – and it’s wonderful.
Octavia Spencer plays veterinary assistant Sue Ann, who consents to buy booze for a group of high schoolers heading off for an evening of illicit drinking at a well-known hangout spot. Among them is Maggie (Diana Silvers), who has just moved to the area with her mum (Juliette Lewis), who was brought up there. When cops shut down the hangout spot, Sue Ann offers up her own basement to the kids and their friends, dubbing herself ‘Ma’. But as her behaviour gets more erratic, Maggie and best friend Haley (McKaley Miller) begin to discover there’s something more behind Ma’s welcoming smile.
If that plot summary sounds vague, it’s because the myriad surprises of Ma are best left unsullied by mentioning them in a review. Don’t be fooled by Tate Taylor’s fairly respectable cinematic career – he previously directed Spencer to an Oscar in The Help and gave paperback pulp a glossy sheen with The Girl on the Train – this is all-out, exploitation silliness of the most lurid kind. The Blumhouse machine has churned out another slice of prime horror ham, but the sense of identity is clear. This is a midnight movie that knows which buttons to push.
Wisely, it doesn’t take long before Taylor lifts the veil of matriarchal sweetness from Spencer’s character. Within minutes of turning her basement into an underage speakeasy for clientele only slightly more mature than the one in Bugsy Malone, Spencer is flirting outrageously with Maggie’s new boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) and leaving dozens of odd messages for the kids on social media accounts she seems to have found through questionable snooping. She also has a rule that the kids shouldn’t go upstairs, which is almost as big a red flag as the fact she has a life-size cow as the welcome sign in front of her house. That ain’t normal.
It’s difficult to fully express the insanity of Ma through words, but rest assured this is a meme hit in the making. Every time you think it has pushed the crazy bar as high as it will go, there’s another non-sequitur line of dialogue or horrifying act of violence – there’s a late scene that has more than a touch of Saw about it – to keep the weirdness amp rising. The vogue soubriquet for a film like this ‘so bad, it’s good’ but, when it’s as raucously horrible and dementedly entertaining as this, there’s no way the people involved don’t know what they’re doing.
This knowing madness comes through loud and clear in Spencer’s performance. After years of fairly thankless supporting roles, she finally gets to spread her wings with a turn of freaky flamboyance that has plenty of meat on its bones. Spencer’s talent allows her to lean in to the raggedy edges of the character, and her traumatic back story, while also providing real emotion. The raucous laughter at my screening was interrupted in a scene in which Ma cries at the roadside having been abandoned by some of her young friends, with Spencer striking a real note of heartbreak in amongst the Grand Guignol chaos. She’s clearly having the time of her life in the role, and even gets to deliver an instant entry into the Movie C-Bomb Hall of Fame.
Somehow, Spencer isn’t even the only Oscar winner to appear in the film, with Allison Janney popping up to swear her way through an enjoyable cameo as Sue Ann’s boss. Elsewhere, the likes of Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis and Missi Pyle also show up, providing a somewhat more recognisable ensemble than fans have come to expect from the Blumhouse output. The young cast, too, are more memorable than the standard selection of tropes. Silvers, recently seen in Booksmart, is particularly good as someone who has just fallen into an established group of friends, but lacks the desperation of many movie “new kids”.
There’s something for every brand of horror fan in Ma, whether it’s audacious lashings of gore, a handful of potent jump scares or simply the macabre spectacle of revenge so brutal it makes Stephen King’s Carrie look like a paragon of mercy. Taylor’s film embraces its own bone-headed, over-cranked mayhem in order to conjure a thrill ride that’s wildly unpredictable and consistently surprising.
It’s offensive, nasty and downright unpleasant. I loved it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.