Tate Taylor’s new movie Ma starring Octavia Spencer had the potential to be the weirdest movie of the the year. Instead, Ma‘s basement of horrors falls flat.
Blumhouse Productions, led by star Hollywood producer Jason Blum, has consistently turned out some of the best and most successful horror films of the last ten years. With some major successes under their belt, including Jordan Peele’s Get Out, David Gordon Green’s Halloween reboot, and multiple horror franchises including Insidious, Unfriended, and
Unfortunately, Blumhouse’s newest project fails to live up to their usual standards. Ma, a psychological horror film starring Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, and newcomer Diana Silvers, inspires more laughs than it might intend and fewer scares than it ought to. Despite an entertaining and committed performance from Octavia Spencer in the titular role, Ma falls short of reaching its potential, turning what should have been one of the year’s scariest and weirdest movies into a toothless allegory for childhood trauma.
The movie begins by introducing us to our protagonist Maggie, played by one of 2019’s definitive breakout stars Diana Silvers. Silvers has already appeared in three movies this year alone. After you watch Ma, you can see Silvers in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass.
In Ma, Silvers plays Maggie, a sixteen-year-old returning to her mother’s hometown in rural Ohio in the wake of her parents’ separation. Her mother Erica (played by Juliette Lewis) hopes that returning home will make things easier. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t! The horrific events that follow their move prove they should never have returned in the first place. As the mother-daughter duo face the challenge of reintegrating into a community that they thought they’d left behind, they find themselves wrapped up in a dangerous web of deceit with violent consequences.
After a group of friends at her new school invites her to hang out, Maggie, a quietly confident young woman, finds herself standing outside of a local liquor store bribing passerby’s to buy alcohol for her and her new friends. She strike outs until a seemingly harmless veterinary assistant walks by. Clad in her nurses scrubs, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) fulfills the teens’ liquor store order and later invites them to drink in her basement, emphasizing that she only wants them to be safe. Sure, Sue Ann…
Despite how ridiculous it sounds (and trust me, it is!), the dynamic between Sue Ann and the teenagers is actually one of the most well-orchestrated aspects of the film. In its first act, the movie believably establishes a world where teenagers would agree to drink out of a stranger’s basement. The rules of this world are governed by small town sensibilities, one where you trust your neighbors, talk to strangers, and never lock your front door. Maggie’s outsider status serves a distinct purpose to explain her skeptical perspective of the situation in Sue Ann’s basement. Even as Maggie’s peers leap at the opportunity to party with Sue Ann — giving her the nickname “Ma” signaling their acceptance of her into the group — Maggie remains distrustful.
After establishing the dynamic between Sue Ann and this group of teens, it doesn’t take long for Ma to spiral out of control (and not in a good way). Despite the exciting potential of Ma‘s truly unhinged premise, the film falls flat of living up to its premise. It never manages to be as weird or scary as it should be, delivering a finished product that feels far too safe for its own good.
Director Tate Taylor, a dude who has made a career for himself by directing perfunctory and uninspired studio films including 2016’s weak adaptation of The Girl on the Train, simply isn’t up to the task of taking Ma where it needs to go. Whenever you think the movie is about to commit to something truly terrifying, it recoils as if afraid of its own tail. Moreover, it jumps forward through plot with a casual disregard for fostering a logical progression of events. Ma is a most frustrating viewing experience, like watching a chef prepare a terrible meal despite having access to all the right ingredients.
Ma haphazardly stitches together Sue Ann’s backstory with her present situation, weaving in plot related traumatic childhood memories, sexual assault, and even Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, all the while refusing to truly reckon with the dramatic implications of these points. Layered ontop of this is Maggie’s own story of survival as she tries to save her friends from the fate that awaits them in Ma’s bedroom.
This is to say nothing of the numerous socio-political dynamics that go untouched by the script. There’s plenty to unpack in Ma, particularly its depictions of peer pressure and post-traumatic stress disorder, the relationship between rural communities and substance abuse, and the racial dynamics and implications between the predominately white cast and its black villain. However, these elements go to waste under Taylor’s direction as he pursues what can best be described as the most diluted version of this story as possible.
In the end, it’s hard to stay mad at Ma. Even when it’s failing to live up to its potential, Ma still manages to deliver a wild ride and a fun time, even if it’s not exactly the trip you were expecting to take. The cast boasts an embarrassment of riches, giving its leads the opportunity to shine in an unfamiliar and uncommon light. What fails to land as horror, succeeds as a sort of perverse comedy.