The latest addition to the Blumhouse horror stable, dovetails revenge thriller with the classic teen horror format. Creating a hybrid of themes, that at times echos 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and at others 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer. The end result is a confused film that doesn’t really know whether it is a thriller, horror or stalker movie. Ma never really manages to lift itself out of the messy and average horror territory it occupies, bypassing large story elements that could have made it work, in favour of cheap jumps and simplicity.
The premise is simple, a small town where people never move after High School, and a scared woman who was tormented by a group of popular kids at school. Consumed by her hurt and anger, she stalks the adults who caused her pain as a teenager, eventually seeing an opportunity for revenge by hurting their teenage children.
Directed by Tate Taylor, who is better known for drama films such as The Help and 2016’s The Girl on the Train. Ma feels like a complete departure in directorial vision and style, replacing his drama credentials was formulaic B Movie horror. His vision and creativity does at times create interesting themes on race in a small town of limited diversity, but these are unfortunately swept aside with little explanation. As is the majority of the backstory that leads to the eventual psychopathy and violence of Sue Ann. Her child feels like an incidental plot device, and her journey from a sensible, studious and isolated teenager to a split personality adult stalker a huge jump in narrative.
By the time we reach the final act, you can’t help but feel Tate Taylor simply wants the round the movie off as quickly as possible. It is a great shame that Ma opts for simple formulas over story, as with the truly amazing Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann, this could have been a thriller with huge potential. Especially when you consider the talent working alongside Spencer, including Alison Janney, Luke Evans and Juliette Lewis.
Ma’s young cast show also show huge potential, but are never allowed to develop their characters beyond a one dimensional teen horror performance. Apart from Maggie (Diana Silvers) the young friends are never allowed to fully interface with the parents who tormented Sue Ann. Creating limited opportunity for the young people to reflect on the behaviour of their own parents.
The saving grace for Ma comes from the performance of Octavia Spencer who manages to take her character to new depths, despite the huge flaws present in the script and structure. Without Spencer this film would have felt like a straight to streaming release. Spencer dovetails her warm and effervescent personality with sudden darkness and horror. Keeping the audience engaged and intrigued in how far she will go to fulfil her ultimate revenge. But even with the her effortless ability to engage, Spencer cannot rescue the film from its own failings.
With way too many plot holes, filled with quick and easy formula horror. Ma never allows itself the room to develop the story that the cast deserved. And while Octavia Spencer shines on screen, you are ultimately let down by a film that never knows what it wants to say, and what genre it wants to be.