There are many different sub-genres in horror: Grindhouse, thriller, science fiction, horror/comedy, social commentary and splatter are but a few that instantly come to mind. Tate Taylor’s (Winter’s Bone, The Help) has cooked up the new movie Ma as a cocktail combining elements from some of these different subsections. What we’re ultimately left with is something that is compulsively watchable say the way Mother, May I Please Sleep With Danger is – Lots of empty calories that belay a lack of any real meat on the bone. You leave the theater a little hungover vowing to yourself that you’ll never go back for seconds (or – GULP – thirds) while secretly relishing the most decadent and cheesy of bites.
Tearing a page from such films as Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Orphan, Ma centers around Octavia Spencer, here playing with major gusto an isolated and lonely woman named Sue Ann who becomes friends with a group of teens. She eventually allows the group to use the basement in her home as ground zero for their parties. But there are caveats to this. No cursing is allowed for whatever debauchery the friends can come up with and a sober friend must always be present during said partying. Oh and yeah, one more minor rule: They must never, ever tread upstairs. You know, just ‘cause.
In the tradition of some of the above named horror flicks, Ma (the name Spencer’s character insists her new teenage friends call her by) starts the story subtly and slightly off-kilter until slowly she becomes obsessed with her young protégé’s.
Ma’s one real virtue comes from the cheese inherent in the story. This is a movie that you put on as background noise to the late night party and the movie where you pluck uber-cheesy lines from the dialogue as you would overripe fruit from a low-hanging tree. In that sense, in the utter predictability and the over the top logic of the plot, it comes out ahead until you realize everyone involved in the making of Ma is expressly going out of their way not to make that movie. That very air of conceit (and obliviousness?) takes the fun out of the proceedings.
There’s many shingles that Ma could have hung its respective hat on: As a commentary on ageism and/or racism wrapped within the confines of a horror movie, as a simple thriller with a devilish twist or another in a long line of teen horror. Ma is about all of these and yet about nothing at all: The casting of Octavia Spencer – easily the best thing in Ma – precludes it from becoming I Know What You Did Last Summer Part 20 (seriously, how long has that film series been on extended life-support?). Ms. Spencer is simply too good of an actress to not elevate the movie when she is onscreen. But the movie’s one real virtue is also its conundrum: Spencer seems to be too good for the part as written and watching her in this you long to see her in something more deserving of her attention as an Oscar nominated actress. Yet it’s almost as if Tate Taylor’s own ambitions for what he wants the movie to be is too much weight for what essentially is a Lifetime movie of the week to carry. The bottom does not hold.