Written by Scotty Landes
Directed by Tate Taylor
Blumhouse has created a monopoly on the majority of horror in cinemas these days. Paranormal Activity was the first production that Jason Blum saw as a successful foray into horror films, and he hasn’t stopped since. I haven’t enjoyed any Blumhouse movie I’ve seen, or least I wouldn’t make an effort to rewatch anything that has crossed my screen. The factory model of filmmaking is inevitably going to deliver a majority of mediocre products and maybe once in a while something special. I don’t think Ma is that unique jewel amongst the garbage, but it isn’t awful. The core factor that keeps Ma from being a monotonous mess is Octavia Spencer.
Pretty quickly into Ma, I realized I’d seen this plot before. If you’ve watched anything from Carrie to the Friday the 13th, then you know this story of revenge fueled by humiliation. The film doesn’t even try to keep it secret, always hinting with flashbacks and if you’ve seen the trailer (which almost ruins every twist in the movie), then you already know where the film is going before it starts. The protagonists are incredibly bland and uninteresting, as most audiences should come to expect from these pictures. Each high schooler fits a specific trope and aren’t developed much further than that.
There was great potential to make Ma a discussion about Race inside of a horror film; it’s been done very recently (see Get Out). You also have director Tate Taylor who worked with Octavia Spencer on The Help, a film very specifically about Race and privilege. For just a moment you get the hint they might address this the flashbacks start but Ma being a black woman is barely acknowledged by the script. You get the sense that writer Scotty Landes wrote this without Race in mind and Taylor never thought to tweak it in a way to elevate the movie above just a straightforward revenge horror. Ma is one of only three black faces we see in the film, the only adult, and so this concept felt like it was screaming to be explored.
As far as concepts this is one of the more original ones that Blumhouse has put out: a kindly woman buys alcohol for teenagers and offers her basement for their use they are in a safe place, but has ill intentions. I can’t think of another horror movie with a premise like this. Spencer is also able to switch between a harmless vet tech to a deeply disturbed woman capable of murder so fluidly. I imagine she’s channeling some Glenn Close circa Fatal Attraction. She can ratchet up the insanity and then bring everything back to down to a grounded sadness so that the teenagers find a way to forgive her more eccentric behaviors.
One of the worst things Ma does for the majority of its runtime is to deliver a dreadfully dull story. The main characters aren’t interesting, and for all her acting chops Spencer can’t make Ma’s cliche backstory worth caring about. So, like most Blumhouse films, I found myself fading in and out of what was happening on screen and my thoughts about other things I’d rather be doing — a colossal disappointment for a film that has the credentials and potential to be something different.