Like a subscription box tailored specifically to my taste, Blumhouse Productions has dropped off another horror movie right on schedule. You have to give credit to Jason Blum and his veracious love for horror films (or making money, whichever comes first). Blumhouse isn’t interested in sitting around and doling out a prestige film once a year. Instead, the production company that has had a hand in everything from Paranormal Activity to Get Out to BlacKkKlansmen to The Purge keeps churning films out.
Some of them are made to be heavy hitters, movies even your easily spooked friends will see, while others have a weirder, decidedly more indie flair (if you haven’t checked out Cam on Netflix, you have my permission to stop reading this and go lose yourself in its sneaky surrealism). Jason clearly isn’t a snob. He knows what horror fans want. Even though we might whine online about people not taking horror movies seriously, at the end of the day, we really just want more. More villains. More gore. More jump scares. More.
And if you look at it from that lens, Ma delivers. It’s a weird little film that should feel leaner than it is, with its cramped basement atmosphere and small group of (mostly) forgettable teens. Instead, Ma sprawls in every direction, aping Saw and The Act with equal reverence.
Kicking off with a classic fish out of water trope, Maggie Thompson (played by the way too striking to be a 16-year-old Diana Silvers) and her mother Erica move into a nondescript town to start over. Lucky for Maggie, she immediately makes friends with the coolest kids in school and joins them for your average suburban kid party, which in this case means getting drunk by some rock formations (in my day it meant getting drunk by the Tot Lot, a small children’s playground in the middle of the woods). After convincing a sweet, but sharp Sue Ann (played with wild eyed perfection by Octavia Spencer) to buy them liquor, they quickly come to rely on her for their Fireball fix. Soon enough, Sue Ann lures them to her house under the guise of being a responsible adult who doesn’t want anyone to drink and drive. Torture, sex, stealing, and even wilder things that I would never want to spoil soon start to happen.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that Spencer steals every scene. Her ability to bounce between meek and dangerous gives you the good kind of whiplash. In any given shot she might go from being maternal to insane to sexual all in the span of a few seconds. She is a joy to watch, even when her performance leaves you squirming in your seat. And that is the primary emotion you’ll feel white watching Ma. The movie sort of succeeds in fleshing out Spencer’s character and attempting to make you feel sympathy for the villain, but even the pastel colored flashback scenes that deal with small town racism head on are laced with shlock.
One of the more interesting themes woven through Ma is its head-on look at the sexual lives of the middle aged. There are parents getting secret blow jobs, parents dressed in sequined hot pants, and parents openly lusting after men (and, unfortunately, boys) throughout the film. In comparison, the sexual lives of the teen protagonists take a distant second place. By the third act, the overtly sexual scenes have become even more twisted and Ma veers head on into torture porn.
The adults are so much more interesting than the children in Ma that you really wish you could spend more time with them. Even though the parents (save Spencer) is nothing more than a side plot, their characters are more fleshed out and vital than the bright eyed teens getting drunk at Ma’s every Friday night. It doesn’t help that most of the teen dialogue is ridiculous. Half of the time they sound like teens from another dimension, talking in ways that feel awkward and exaggerated. It’s almost always funny, but it’s hard to tell if that’s by design.
Despite its issues, Ma might be one of the most buckwild films you’ll see in theaters this year. Its dedication to keeping you on your toes and pumping out surprises at the last minute is admirable. It’s like a rollercoaster ride: you might not enjoy every minute, but you will have fun screaming your head off.