The great Octavia Spencer, Academy Award winner and most humble of actors, plays the lead role in the latest Blumhouse “horror” Ma. It’s hard for me to classify this as a horror movie, though I suppose the genre fits with its tropes and tactics. It’s hard for me because of how much I actually found myself empathizing with Spencer’s killer, a woman once tormented very dirtily in school, shut-off from others for years, now with a chance at friendship and, indeed, revenge. Of course, she’s obsessive and takes things way too far and too violently with plenty of pleasure to go around, but I couldn’t detach my own experiences and missteps from hers.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the power of good writing and superb acting.
Ma is definitely b-movie exploitation-ish for the crowd that enjoys gruesome acts and over-the-top scenarios. Not that every scene is something bloody or nasty, mind you. It starts off as a teen drama about fitting in with a new town before becoming all about Spencer’s Sue Ann and her fixation on the past, the mystery of her present, and possibility for her future. After roughly twenty or so minutes in, the modern day high schoolers become merely background a maybe body count fodder for Spencer to chew around. By chew, I don’t mean that she “chews the scenery” or goes out of her skull with line reads. No, Spencer is a true pro and treats her role in this film with an uneasy grace while maintaining a superior almost immortal presence.
Her performance reminds me very much of Kane Hodder as Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films. Indeed, Ma follows many of the same trappings as those classic slashers, like standard jump scares, silly to blunt brilliant kills, bullies, etc, but where it truly matches Jason is in movement. In Spencer’s movement. When her character is having fun, she gets down and dances with genuine exuberance. When she’s annoyed or worse, she wears it all in the eyes. When enraged, she’s calm from the waist up but acts fast and with purpose. The way she plays Sue Ann is like Hodder’s Jason and even comes off as potentially indestructible.
The revelation of her past trauma and the inexplicable coincidences in her ultimate plan of vengeance are disgusting and too convenient respectively. But, who cares? Octavia Spencer has made Sue Ann as Ma into a whole new franchise, should Blumhouse be willing to go further. I won’t spoil the ending, though, for this critic, it was both anti-climactic and suggestive. Suggestive of more stories to come? Of sequels? Perhaps, and I certainly hope so.
Sure, wanting more movies out of Sue Ann’s Ma might go against what her character experienced and accomplished, might turn her into something worse (cyborg?), and might make the story lose its empathetic touch. That ending, for its faults, works as a good way for a monster to go out quite frankly and so, that could be enough. It would be a shame not to explore the idea of doing additional stories, as tricky it would/could be. And then there are the spin-off toys…
…Octavia Spencer in Ma is memorable and one of a kind, but not ripe for mass retail marketing and action figure making, at least not in the way Jason and Freddy are. It’s not because it wouldn’t be successful, but rather it might be wrong. Wrong to use Sue Ann’s pain and personality as a novelty in a niche way. Like making Hannibal Lecter a hero, or something. Just wrong. Am I wrong for kind of identifying with her? Yes and no.
We’ve all been hurt, we all will age, and most will not move on from the past. It’s funny how Ma has taken me in this direction, but here I am, blubbering about such things. Spencer taps into something true and terrifying in all of us and that’s the real horror in this. It’s just so wrong, but…
RATING: 2.5 / 5
Ma is now playing in theaters across the city and metro area.