Over the last few years that I’ve been working on this site, I’ve found myself really gaining a larger appreciation for horror movies. Horror was never really my genre, and I spent a majority of my life just kind of ignoring it, not really coming across much that clicked for me. But, primarily due to the fact that I’ve developed some sort of pathological need to go to the movies every damn week to find something to talk about, I’ve found myself experimenting more and more with horror. Which, has kind of taken two very different forms. There’s been the weird arty horror that pedants refer to as “elevated horror” like the stuff from A24, Jordan Peele, and the like and then there’s been the schlocky, borderline exploitation horror coming from relatively smaller studios, perhaps best done by producer Jason Blum and his production house Blumhouse. They’ve developed a niche for themselves in the world of horror, giving directors the chance to make extremely low-budget horror movies that are allowed to basically do whatever they want, letting them go with whatever strange horror impulse they fell. And, that has led to a very strange and scatterbrained output. Some of the times it works like gangbusters, and creates a new horror film destined to be a classic. Other times it generates incredibly strange head-scratchers that will probably become little more than footnotes in the careers of those who are involved. And, more than likely coming in as an addition to that later option, we have Ma.
Ma is the story of a young woman named Maggie who has just moved back to her mother’s small hometown in Ohio. Maggie, the new kid in school, quickly befriends a group of kids named Andy, Haley, Chaz, and Darrell, who seem to spend a majority of their time just driving around and getting drunk. Which, requires them to occasionally beg strangers on the street to buy them alcohol. And, on the first day that Maggie participates in this, they end up meeting a middle-aged veterinary technician named Sue Ann who offers to give them the booze. However, as soon as she gets them the alcohol she anonymously calls Andy’s father Ben, and tells him that the kids are getting drunk. This puts the kids on high alert, and eager to find a new place to drink. And, luckily, the next day they find a strange option. Because they run into Sue Ann again, who brings them to her secluded house in the woods, offering to let them drink in her basement. And, for some reason, they do this, and end up having a good time.
And, just like that, Sue Ann’s house becomes the popular place for the teenagers of this new town to get drunk at. They begin affectionately calling her Ma, and begin spending a lot of time at her house, giving Ma the chance to hang out with these young kids and feel popular. However, the kids start to feel wary of Ma, especially Maggie, and do their best to distance themselves from her. Which, just so happens to correspond with Andy’s father Ben approaching Sue Ann and telling her to stay away from his son. Because it turns out that Sue Ann went to high school with a majority of these kids parents, and they frequently bullied her. But, a combination of Ben’s warning and the kids starting to ignore her causes Sue Ann to go off the deep end. She’s triggered into a homicidal rage, killing one of the women in town who tormented her in high school, and concocting a plan to kill all of the kids at their latest party. Maggie attempts to save them, but they’re all knocked unconscious by tranquilizers that she stole from the vet office. While the kids are unconscious Sue Ann lures Ben to the house and murders him, then gets ready to start killing the kids. But, while all of this is going on Maggie’s mother and a coworker of hers have tracked the kids down to Sue Ann’s house, and get ready to rescue them at the same time that Sue Ann’s daughter, who Sue Ann has kept locked up in the house in a sort of Munchausen by proxy thing, comes to their rescue. Many of the kids are wounded, but they escape Sue Ann’s house after stabbing her and setting the house on fire. Sue Ann then lays down in the burning house, ready to die.
Ma wasn’t a great movie. There are some elements of it that were pretty fun, and it’s a competently made film. Really, the movie just finds itself in a position where it just needed to make some more bold choices to actually become interesting. The movie is schlocky and kind of trashy, but it also feels kind of controlled and staid at times. It also seems to be playing around with some really interesting ideas in horror, but doesn’t ever examine them enough. Which ends up giving us a movie that at times feels like it’s trying to say something and never quite finishes, and at times feels like it wants to go full-blown absurd and doesn’t have the guts. There are plenty of issues with this movie that others have brought up, such as the way that it seems to acknowledge but then not examine the racial elements of the story, as well as the sexual, which makes it feel like this movie could have been something more special. But, instead it just kind of gives you a peek at that, and gives up before it can get going. It just feels like a movie that didn’t have much to say, or really an aesthetic it wanted to chase, which kind of begs the question of why this movie even exists.
And, weirdly, that ended up being the thing I found most interesting about Ma. As it stands, the movie is just kind of bland and forgettable, and will probably just serve as a strange trivia point, having people be shocked that Octavia Spencer was in this incredibly weird little horror movie. And, it turns out that that was kind of the point. I found myself incredibly curious about why Octavia Spencer would have made this movie, and it turns out that she basically sick of playing the same sort of roles, and wanted to try something very different. And, director Tate Taylor, who has primarily worked on drama’s, felt the same way, and since they’d worked together on the Help they decided to just give horror a shot. Which, is actually kind of a fun idea. I don’t particularly think that it was a successful experiment, but I really respect the idea that Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor were both just feeling a little stagnant, and decided to just try something that neither of them had done before, getting out of their comfort zones. This movie didn’t really work out, but I feel like that’s something more creators should be doing, especially while companies like Blumhouse are giving creators a chance to do whatever weird little horror story they have in their heads. Some of them are bound to be good.
Ma was written by Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor, directed by Tate Taylor, and released by Universal Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk