Release: May 31, 2019
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Scotty Landes
Starring: Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington, Diana Silvers as Maggie Thompson, Juliette Lewis as Erica Thompson, Luke Evans as Ben Hawkins, Corey Fogelmanis as Andy Hawkins, and McKaley Miller as Haley
Running Time: 99 minutes
After a downturn in her life, Erica Thompson moves back to her hometown in Ohio (that looks suspiciously like Mississippi) with her teenage daughter Maggie. At school, Maggie befriends a stereotypical inter-clique horror movie friend group: a thot, a jockish/bro type, the quiet nerd, and the black guy. Whilst loitering outside of a liquor store attempting to find an adult to procure for them a list of various types of alcohol, they meet Sue Ann, a middle aged veterinary technician. Sue Ann agrees to buy the alcohol for the kids and sends them on their merry way. Sue anonymously tips off Ben Hawkins, father of one of the boys in the group, to the kids’ whereabouts and Ben calls the police. A police officer turns up, but lets the kids off with a wink and a nod because he knows Ben from his high school days and remembers him being “a dick.” The next day, Sue Ann again furnishes the gang with alcohol, but insists that they drink in her basement as it will be safer. The only caveat is that they must never venture upstairs. From this point forth, Sue’s behavior becomes more and more erratic before lapsing into the full on homicidal.
Ma is a medium budget psychological horror flick directed by Tate Taylor, perhaps best known for 2011 prestige picture The Help. It represents the director’s first foray into the genre, and apparently stemmed from a desire to direct something that was “really fucked up.” While Ma does trod some pretty well worn ground (horror viewers are all familiar with “vicarious vengeance” plots and “you’re welcome here, just don’t go upstairs” may as well be a trope at this point), but it does it well. The acting is, as horror goes, top notch. Most of the young cast do a good job and don’t get excessively hammy. Unsurprising, Spencer is outstanding in the role of Sue Ann, the titular “Ma,” not just delivering lines well, but giving an outstanding physical performance that really helps to sell the depths of the character’s psychosis. The film could be loosely characterized as bordering on a combination of psychological horror and the good old slasher flick. While it overall bears more resemblance to the former, it has the atmosphere of the latter, especially during the late few onscreen killings that occur during the latter half of the picture.
If there is one area I have to single out for criticism, it is the editing. I actually alluded to this in the first sentence of this review. Ma is set in Ohio, but it was filmed in Mississippi. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having one location stand in for another, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. I can not even begin to account the number of times Atlanta and New Orleans have stood in for other cities over the years. The problem with Ma comes in the opening of the picture. When Erica and Maggie are arriving in town for the first time, there are very visible highway signs that peg their location as being somewhere near Natchez, Mississippi.
I believe that I’ve said in the past that I find Blumhouse to be a very inconsistent studio. Yes, on the whole, they do produce good horror. Unfortunately, they’re also a studio that knows how to ruin good horror. I’ve seen them completely botch what could be an entertaining concept by seeking PG-13 ratings. Sometimes they ruin a good film at the last second by insisting on the insertion of final jump scares. Thankfully they seem to have managed to avoid some of their worst impulses here.