The great Octavia Spencer, a three-time Oscar nominee and winner for The Help, recently decried the fact that starring roles in horror films have long been unfairly denied to women of color (Lupita Nyong’o in Us being an outstanding exception). So it’s a kick to see Spencer dig into the title role in Ma, a Blumhouse scarefest that tries but rarely lives up to the irresistible dynamo at its center.
Spencer plays Sue Ann, an assistant to a grouchy veterinarian (Allison Janney) who resents that Sue Ann’s mind is always on something other than her job. You’ll find out why soon enough. In the meantime, Sue Ann befriends a group of neighborhood teens by giving in to their pleas to buy them booze. Instead of getting drunk at the local rock pile, Sue Ann offers her basement as party central. There’s one caveat: Don’t you dare go upstairs! No matter. The kids are thrilled, calling Sue Ann Ma and learning to depend on the generosity of this warm, presumably lonely woman.
Big mistake. It’s Maggie (Diana Silvers), the new kid in town, who first falls under Ma’s spell. Her trashy cocktail waitress mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis doing Juliette Lewis to a tee), rarely has time for Maggie, who’s falling hard for Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the nicest hottie in the bunch. Everything’s cozy until Ma goes too far by forcing Andy to strip at gunpoint. Ma says it’s all a joke. But is it? Spencer can turn Ma’s sunshine smile to thundering menace on a dime.
It’s a twisted treat to watch Spencer screw with her simpatico image (think of her in Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water). There’s also potential in the script by Scotty Landes that sets up Ma as a wronged woman who’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In flashbacks the young Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson) is portrayed as a shy girl who gets abused in body and mind by bullies, especially local hero Ben (Matthew Welch), who grew up to be — wait for it — Maggie’s piggish divorced daddy (Luke Evans). And, hey, aren’t these teens the children of the jerks who made Sue Ann’s life hell in high school?
If you can’t see what’s coming, you’ve probably never seen a horror film — make that any film. Director Tate Taylor, who led Spencer to her Oscar in The Help and proved his mettle with the James Brown biopic Get on Up (let’s not mention The Girl on the Train), can’t pull Ma from the shallows of punishing predictability.
It takes a hell of an actress to build empathy for a character who might, if you cross her, shoot you up with animal tranquilizers just for starters. Ma borrows shamelessly from the revenge-thriller handbook, with heaping scoops of Carrie and Misery. But the film can’t find a pulse of its own. There’s a burst of gore at the end, but the film feels curiously bloodless. Except when Spencer is on screen, which luckily is a lot. Always a pleasure to watch, Spencer does her powerful best to raise <em>Ma</em> above the horror herd. It’s too bad she’s fighting a losing battle.