Oscar winner Octavia Spencer breaks her honey-sweet image in horror-thriller Ma. More accurately, she playfully toys with it, stalks it, and then impales it. She plays Sue Ann, a lonely, small-town veterinary aide who is befriended by a bunch of high school teens when she agrees to buy them alcohol; before long, her basement has become the go-to Shangri-La for underage drinking and partying, much to her delight. But things start to unravel, and “Ma” begins to insinuate herself into the lives of her newfound buddies…
The Help director Tate Taylor has delivered a confident slice of psychological horror, a sick little puppy that takes its time getting there, but ultimately soars. The third act impressively morphs into a disturbing revenge tale that tackles everything from unresolved childhood trauma to Munchausen-by-proxy, and does it satisfyingly and with sparing but wince-inducingly visceral R-rated thrills.
It’s carried by its central star and it’s fantastic to see Spencer getting a leading role: she alternatively convinces as affable, pitifully lonely and, ultimately, downright dangerous. Her casting is brilliantly unlikely but also upends certain tropes with regards to women of colour in horror films. The title may evoke the “mammy” archetype, but racial commentary is barely there: this is not Get Out, nor does it aim to be, and anyone looking for weighty subtext regarding the black female experience may end up feeling short-changed. Ma instead simply allows Spencer to channel her inner Annie Wilkes in order to evoke the spirit of Misery, and, to a degree, Carrie.
Beyond these two Stephen King adaptations, there’s a less obvious but equally potent touchstone: Wes Craven. On a purely thematic level, there are strong shades of Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream, in the way in which the younger characters inherit the sins of the parents and become pawns in a larger game of trauma inheritance. This (slightly spoilery) subtext, as well as the aforementioned third act nastiness, makes Ma a lot of fun for the discerning horror fan. And while not wholly memorable nor perfect – the ending spells things out far too much and the peerless Allison Janney is bafflingly underused in a cameo appearance – it will more than tide you over until Child’s Play and It – Chapter 2.
Ma | Directed by Tate Taylor (US, 2019), with Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans. Starts May 30.
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