Micro-budget thriller ‘Ma’ razor-sharp

Spencer’s performance defines Ma, oscillating from genuinely maternal to unhinged, sometimes within the same shot, without it feeling like a shift. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

8/10 I came into Ma wondering how they drew in talent like Octavia Spencer, Luke Evans and Juliette Lewis for this $5 million goof. I stayed for a spectacular, nasty horror movie.

After losing her job in the city, Erica Thompson (Lewis) moves back to rural Ohio with her teenage daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers). Maggie and her new friends, including her crush Andy Hawkins (Corey Fogelmanis), looking for an adult to buy them booze, come across Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer), who not only supplies them with drink, but also brings them to her basement for a place to party away from prying eyes.  Owning what quickly becomes a hub for underage drinking, Ellington, nicknamed “Ma,” hatches her revenge on Erica Thompson and Andy’s father, Ben Hawkins (Evans).

Ma is the graceful version of the movie every modern B horror movie wants to be. In Ma, genre serves story, not the other way around. Plenty of cheap horror movies feel like plot points have been strapped on to a horror framework, but here, everything is character-driven, and its remarkably standard plot points feel organic. There’s no grand third-act reveal here, the situation just escalates.

The movie does have twists and turns, but it’s not interested in concealing them. Twists peek out before they spring, but never too much, just enough to make it explicit that something is amiss. This might seem like oversharing, but functionally it’s only alerting viewers to what they already knew – that this is a horror movie, and Ellington is the villain – while disguising more specific twists that aren’t foreshadowed at all. Ma tells you more than the average horror movie, all while keeping its real secrets completely under wraps.

The way in which Ma most recalls modern B movies is its breakneck pace from scene to scene, which keeps viewers off-balance. There’s this fleeting effortlessness to every scene that feels like it might be the product of well-disguised apathy were it not for the detailed, well-composed shots or the sinister perfection of certain lines.

The dialogue is brilliant here, with double and triple meanings compounding and layering toward the end of the film.

Silvers is making a name for herself quickly, appearing in both Booksmart and Ma in consecutive weeks. She stood out in Booksmart as the only actor who was really acting, and in Ma surrounded by a veteran cast and crew, she still stands out with a nuanced physical performance.

Ma has something I’ve decided to call Big Elm Street Energy – it’s eerily reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and not just because of the ‘80s music. Much life Freddie Kruger, Ellington is the product of the sins of her victims’ parents, and parental failure is a major undercurrent of both movies. That sense of betrayal, that not only will these children soon be out on their own, but they will be out on their own being hunted by a monster of their parents’ making, stings strongly.

Another way Ma reinforces this sins of the past idea is a recurring theme of old and new technology at war with each other. A deft Facebook stalker, Ellington is constantly using new-age social media on old hardware. She first uses the website on a cathode ray tube monitor that looks like it belongs in a museum. When her house parties really get underway, ‘80s music blasts through pristine ‘10s speakers, and when she invades the main protagonists’ lives, it’s through text messages and Snapchat.

Everything is subtly damned in Ma. Ellington, Ben Hawkins and Maggie Thompson are all a tangle of failed marriages and abandoned attempts to get ahead. While Ellington is explicitly playing out her high school fantasies and taking revenge for wrongs from that time period, Hawkins and Thompson are just as trapped in the past – Thompson literally after she runs out of other places to go, and Hawkins is still defined by the reputation he developed as a schoolyard bully. It is a ghost story of the players’ past selves, in which they have made themselves into ghosts without yet dying.

Ma may have been a scant $5 million Blumhouse production, but it’s far from a goof. The movie started its life as a script by Scotty Landes, which was re-written by writer/director/producer Tate Taylor who wanted to direct “something fucked up.” Taylor’s a big cheese. His main claim to fame is directing The Help in 2011, and he’s a longtime friend and collaborator of Spencer’s – of Taylor’s six features, Spencer appears in all but 2016’s The Girl on the Train. Evans, Allison Janney and Missi Pyle, who also appear in Ma, feature prominently across his filmography as well.

Instead of being the quick, cheap buck it was initially written as, top-shelf talent took a shine to Ma and turned it into a top-shelf movie, one that deserves more attention than it can properly command. If you can spare two hours for a smaller movie, this thriller deserves your attention.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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