There is a long tradition of actors and actresses starting their career in genre films and going on to “better” things, like Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun or George Clooney in Return of the Killer Tomatoes! It’s much rarer for one at the height of their career to do the opposite and bring their award-heavy resume to the dark side and star in a horror movie, but that is just what Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer has done with her starring role in Ma. And if the result of her decision gets the attention it deserves, a lot of marquee talent soon will be following in her footsteps.
Directed by Tate Taylor, whose direction helped Spencer win a 2012 Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role playing the part of the maid Minny Jackson in The Help, Ma tells the story of a lonely woman who decides to open up her basement as a spot for the local teens to safely party in. Although her concept of being a good neighbor seems a little askew from the start, Ma’s winning personality keeps the kids, and the audience, from being too suspicious of her having an ulterior motive.
At least for a little while. As the story unfolds, we learn that there is a lot more to Ma’s plan than just easing her loneliness. Scarred by a high school prank that left her feeling hurt and vulnerable for the rest of her life, Ma is using the kids as part of a twisted plan to get her revenge on the kids who pranked her in high school, kids who since have grown up to be the parents of the high schoolers that now drink in her house on the weekend.
The fact that none of the adults in the movie recognize each other until the plot needs them to is just one of the mental speed bumps the audience runs into watching Ma. Another is one familiar to most horror fans these days — trying to believe the 20-somethings on the screen are really high school kids. And don’t even start to mentally argue with yourself that someone in a small town like this would have called the cops on this woman long before the body count starts to rise if only because of their kids keep coming home drunk every night. None of it really matters anyway. Once Ma starts to put her plan into action, all you need to do is hold on and enjoy the ride.
And any time you hit one of those mental speed bumps along the way, just keep your eyes on Spencer because her performance as Ma keeps the movie on track. While a lot of actresses would take a role like this and use it as a platform to chew the scenery, Spencer internalizes the insanity of her character in a way that keeps you guessing just how crazy Ma really is. Unlike the kids, who seem oblivious to Ma’s many maniacal moments until it’s almost too late, the audience can see she’s about 51 cards short of a full deck pretty early on in the movie. While Spencer knows all this, she still keeps us guessing just how crazy her character is…and will be. Sometimes she does it with a facial expression, or a complete lack of expression during those moments when Ma goes frighteningly blank. Sometimes it’s to be found in the way she delivers her lines, making the everyday normal seem ominous and the ominous seem like a casual conversation. And sometimes it’s just the way Ma hovers in the background away from the focus of the scene yet stealing it just the same. There’s a reason Spencer has so many awards and nominations on her resume, and it’s on full display in Ma.
The rest of the cast, on the other hand, never really rises to the challenge in terms of matching Spencers’ creative intensity. Juliette Lewis is OK playing the role of a concerned parent of one of the teens who party at Ma’s even though the script doesn’t give her much to do. The same goes for Luke Evans in the role of the grown-up who, as a teen, initiated the prank that hurt Ma in the first place. Both actors bring a lot of energy to the film, but it’s got nowhere to go because the script, written by Scotty Landers, doesn’t give them enough to do.
And the way the movie wastes the talented Allison Janney in a cameo role as the vet who works at the animal hospital where Ma is a receptionist, giving her access to the limitless supply of horse tranquilizers she needs to keep her victims sedated, is a crime. Someone as good as Janney deserves a better role and – since it happens off camera – a much better death scene.
The actors playing the teens who party at Ma’s come across as little more than cardboard cliches of what some studio exec thinks horror movie teens should look like. The fact that they don’t really do anything to deserve what happens to them waters down their presence even more. Usually, it’s fun to watch teens get harassed or hurt in a horror movie because the script makes them so obnoxious you want to see them get killed. Here, you just want them to go home and be safe while their more deserving parents get killed.
- John Black, Ma