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Ma - Mums the word. Ma fails as a psychological thriller

by Rob Lea. Published Mon 03 Jun 2019 21:06, last updated: 03/06/19

Blumhouse’s latest horror, Ma, follows well-worn tropes in horror to present an unsatisfactory, if fun, entry into the psychological thriller genre. 

It’s difficult to view Ma, starring Octavia Spencer as a social outcast who attempts to capture social acceptance with a group of teenagers with murderous results, with comparing it to more successful films that have preceded it.

In tone, the movie, directed by Tate Taylor, seeks to emulate psychological thrillers such as the Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and Misery. But several elements prevent it from achieving the legendary status of these films, none themselves perfect by any means. 

Chief amongst these is the titular character herself, who is hardly likely to sick in the memory the way Kathy Bates’ turn as author capturing, ankle smashing Annie Wilkes. The blame for this shouldn’t be laid at the feet of Octavia Spencer. 

Her performance as Sue Ann paints the picture of a broken woman, who has suffered greatly from ill-treatment at the hands of her schoolmates is, at times, genuinely affecting. The fault lies all in the plot and the direction. 

Looking at films like Single-White Female — it’s the gradual ranking of threat that makes the finales so affecting. Our antagonist slowly works their way into the protagonist’s lives insidiously turning relationships on their heads, building ultimately towards violence. 

Whilst the film makes an attempt to include these elements, we see Sue-Ann trawling the lead teenagers Facebook accounts for instance, she’s simply accepted into their lives too quickly. 

This stretches credibility to breaking point when during the teenagers first foray into Ma’s basement for drinking and pot-smoking, she forces the stereotypical jock character to strip naked at gunpoint. The idea that the teens would ever return is ludicrous, even if Sue-Ann is plying them with Fireball and Pizza Rolls. 

That’s the major failing of the film, the teenage antagonists just don’t feel real. Teenagers aren’t the single-minded hormone bombs they are frequently portrayed as in movies. The fact that this group of teens is so faceless and characterless means there is virtually no tension established in the film. 

I found myself almost singularly unmoved by their plight. The final scene in which Ma enacts her retribution on them was whilst visceral and violent — oddly unaffecting. 

Blumhouse, in general, are frequent offenders in this regard. Whilst some of their films have been breakout hits purely because they make so care for the protagonist others have failed badly as a result of ‘faceless-teen written by middle-aged white dude’ syndrome. 

This means for every hit like ‘Get Out’ they produce, there’s a host of dross like ‘Truth or Dare’ or ‘Unfriended’ to tip the scales back to the mundane. It’s a formula that the studio is unlikely to seek to improve either, as the films they make are so cheap to produce that they rarely fail to turn a significant profit. 

That’s not to say there aren’t serious themes under the surface in Ma. It’s just that every time one of them attempts to surface it’s buried under the film’s attempts to keep its Friday night thrill-seeking audience engaged. 

Sue Ann doesn’t so much take a slow descent into madness as plummet off the deep end over the course of the second act. Likewise, when we learn that her teen targets have a connection to the high schoolers that tormented her, it has little impact because Sue-Ann doesn't meticulously plan revenge. She just happens upon these kids outside an off-licence. 

The problem is the film can’t decide which element of Sue-an it wants to follow, is she seeking revenge on the parents for them mistreating her? Or on this new group of teens for rejecting her? 

The lack of a solid narrative makes it feel like the script, provided by Scotty Landes, could have stood for a few more passes through the writing room. This feels in every sense like a first draft. Plot points are picked up and literally dropped without explanation. 

The worst example of this is lead character Maggie, portrayed adequately by Booksmarts’ Diana Siver, encountering a character on her first day of school who will become intrinsic to the plot. A character who completely disappears for almost two acts without further reference or explanation. 

Likewise, some of Sue-Ann’s lies and contrivances never come to light as the writers decide on a much easier and sillier route towards our main character discovering Ma’s true nature.  There are some plus points to Ma. The audience I watched it with was certainly entertained, although I’m not sure that the filmmakers wanted them to laugh at the precise moments they did.

The adult performances from Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans and Missi Pyle are fine even if their characters are under developed. And Octavia Spencer is great, the scene in her car when she bursts into tears when her cruel treatment at the hands of a group of teenagers she hopes to impress — is truly moving. 

All in all, Ma is entertaining enough, but it’s too poorly plotted, underdeveloped and silly to sit alongside psychological horror classics.

Disappointing.



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