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Movie review: Octavia Spencer goes over the top in ‘Ma’

Octavia Spencer in a scene from ‘Ma.’ Handout

Blumhouse Productions had built their fortune with ghostly flicks like “Paranormal Activity” (2009). “Insidious” (2011), “Sinister” (2012) and “Ouija” (2014), all of which have spun off their respective cinematic mythologies. Building upon that solid foundation, Jason Blum of Blumhouse had gone on to co-produce a couple of Oscar Best Picture nominees “Get Out” (2017) and “BlacKkKlansman” (2018). 

Occasionally, Blumhouse would also tackle horror which do not involve evil spirits. “The Purge” (2013) was about the horror of politically sanctioned social anarchy. “Split” (2017) and “Glass” (2019) were about the psychological horror experienced by people with special abilities. “Happy Death Day” (2017) was a black comedy slasher horror. “The Gift” (2015) was about the horror coming from a friendly person with a disturbed psyche, and so is this this latest one “Ma.”

Sue Ann was a lonely middle-aged woman who worked in a vet’s clinic. One day, she befriended a group of teenagers (Maggie, Haley, Chaz, Durrell and Andy) who randomly requested her to buy alcohol for them as she passed by their van. Calling herself Ma, Sue Ann invited the teens over to use the basement of her house as the venue for their drinking parties, a generous offer which the friends excitedly accepted more than once. Little did they expect that Sue Ann’s kindness and hospitality will soon have its dire consequences. 

Octavia Spencer had already won one Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “The Help” (2011), and had been nominated two more times since then, for “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017). For this role as Sue Ann, Spencer had to summon all her Oscar-pedigreed acting talents to carry the whole weight of this film on her shoulders. As one can already see in the trailers, she goes well over-the-top as Ma, a role that required so much energy for it to succeed. Spencer was clearly having fun with the offbeat role, especially in those three raunchy scenes with handsome actors. 

The teen actors (led by Diana Silver as Maggie and Corey Fogelmanis as her love interest Andy) were the usual variety we see in any Hollywood teen-oriented films — attractive faces and bodies, but nothing substantial in terms of acting to offer. To be fair though, they were not really given much to do here, but drink, dance, make out and be bitchy, again typical of Hollywood teen films. ’90s actress Juliette Lewis returns to the screen as Erica, Maggie’s mother. The hardworking Luke Evans played Ben, Andy’s father.

Honesty, there was not really much real horror in this film at all for maybe the whole first hour, just a lot of teenage carousing with Ma Sue Ann overseeing their foolishness. 

The tension only began in the last 15 minutes or so when Ma got her whole act in play. It started from that of Ben tied to the bed with only a towel covering him, a truly squirmy scene for the men in the audience. This would later escalate all the way to a fiery Grand Guignol finale in the basement, which unfortunately was a case of too much too late.

This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”

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