Ma (2019) Review
GET HOME SAFE!
In recent years, Blumhouse Productions have been one of the most renowned Hollywood production studios to release horror feature films. While the movie doesn’t “exclusive” produce only horror theatrical movies (i.e. the do other movies from other genres), the studio’s “claim to fame” has always been the stuff scares, thrills, and thoroughly creeps moviegoers out. The studio has been around for quite some time, releasing some early work such as the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge; all of which have been prove to effective motion pictures and spawning several sequels within each title. Of course, the Blumhouse has also taken new approaches to its theatrical feature storytelling by offering up new takes on old classic (sort of speak) by experimenting in some movies that both narrative and cinematic tone. The gamble sometimes does play off with films like Spilt, Get Out, and Happy Death Day, being successful in both critical (by critics and moviegoers) as well financial success at the box office. Now, Blumhouse Productions (as well as Universal Pictures) and director Tate Taylor present the latest horror thriller feature with the movie Ma. Does this psychological horror film find its scares within its premise or does languish beyond its own narrative setup?
Forced to return back to her small Louisiana hometown after her marriage strikes out in California, Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis) takes a casino job to support her daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers), who’s forced to accompany her mother in the relocation and join the local school mid-year. In time, Maggie finds a group of friends to hang out with, including class loudmouth Haley (McKaley Miller), nice guy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), with the adolescent clique group interested in drugs and drinking beyond her normal comfort zone. Trying to score booze from an adult, the gang soon come across Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer), a lonely assistant veterinarian, who welcomes the attention from the several youths. Fearful of their actions of getting caught while under the influence, Sue Ann, who’s nicknamed “Ma” insists the teens get crazy inside her basement, offering only a few strict house rules for the partying high schoolers. Soon, the parties grow in both size and frequencies, making Sue Ann part of the celebration and “parties at Ma’s” being the place to be for many teenagers, but something doesn’t sit quite right with Maggie, who’s soon creeped out by Ma’s neediness. However, Maggie and her friends might soon uncover more about Sue Ann, which leads into something shocking and disturbing truths about Ma.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Given the plethora of horror movies theatrical titles that are released every year, Blumhouse Productions has definitely made a name for itself in being the “premiere’ studio for these particular endeavors. As I mentioned above, the studio willingness to try new avenues in approaching cinematic storytelling as been a “work in progress” with some hits like Happy Death Day, Spilt, and Get Out and some lows like Truth or Dare and The Boy Next Door. Since I’ve started to venture into more horror genre territory (in expanding my movie horizons), the films that I’ve seeing under Blumhouse have been rather good and showcase the potential that the studio has for each of its releases. Again, some are low-budget and / or experimental endeavors, but its nice to see a studio take a “risk” of some kind in trying to conjure up a sort of “refresh” to the overly familiar beats of the horror genre.
This brings me back to talking about Ma, a 2019 feature film released by Blumhouse Productions. While a lot of its other recent projects had more prominent product placement and in its marketing campaign, Blumhouse (whether intentional or not) was sort of mystery to me for sometime during its pre-release / production stage. I really didn’t hear much about the movie online or on the various movie websites that I normally visit until I saw I the film’s movie trailers a few months back. Of course, after seeing the trailer, I automatically knew that it was gonna be another horror flick from Hollywood, which can be either good or bad or somewhere in-between. Man… horror movies are like a “dime a dozen” these days if you really think about it. Anyway, Ma’s trailer looked like the normal horror thriller that involves teenagers that get caught up in a bizarre situation in associating with a psychotic / unstable individual. However, common tropes aside, what really made me intrigued to see the movie was because actress Octavia Spencer was gonna be headlining the movie and playing the psychotic / unstable individual, which is definitely something different for the Oscar-awarding actress to play. Also, I’ve started to acquire a little taste for more milder horror features, so I definitely down to see this movie when it came out, which I did a week or so after its release. What did I think of it? Well, its kind is what I expected this project to be. While Ma does get Spencer a great opportunity to play delicious creepy character role, the rest of the movie feels like a “run of the mill” horror thriller. It definitely works and has its entertainment value, but it’s not quite as impactful or original has the movie wants to be.
Ma is directed by Tate Taylor, whose previous directorial works includes movies like The Help, Get on Up, and The Girl on the Train. Giving his various film projects over the years, Taylor seems like a bit of an odd choice for directing psychological horror thriller like Ma. However, Taylor mostly approaches the movie like he did with The Girl on the Train, which is psychological suspense thriller. Thus, Taylor gives Ma (throughout) a sort of creepiness and unsettling premise that works within the feature’s context and tone. Of course, the classic horror tropes are all there, which acts like a “double edge” sword, but Taylor presents it all with a great person at the head of the pack (i.e. Spencer in the role of Sue Ann), which by the way reunites Taylor and Spencer from the work on The Help. Effectively, giving the parameters of the film and the budget, Taylor does quite a wholesomely decent job in shaping Ma; providing viewers on twisted journey (albeit cliched at times) of how a group of teens get ensnared into Sue Ann’s world and have a hard time of escaping her psychotic clingy clutches.
The film’s script, which was penned by Scott Landes, does provide with psychological / horror thrills throughout the movie, which fans of the subgenre will enjoy. It’s not really original or innovated, but the premise alone (with someone like Spencer in the lead role) makes for some creepy horror entertainment. What’s more interesting is that the movie’s title (i.e Ma) hints at the racial stereotype of the sassy, yet nurturing black woman….that has been depicted as the “mammie” caricatures since the early days of Hollywood. It’s definitely plays on that character façade (for better or worse) in this movie, with the script playing up Sue Ann’s harmless façade, but haunted and almost tortured by her dramatic past. Perhaps that’s what makes the character so compelling in the movie, especially since it could happen to anyone and the resulting effects could explode and / or triggered on anyone at any time. Thus, is the case with Maggie and her friends, who venture into Sue Ann’s life and end up getting entangled in her own web of tragedy and twisted / psychotic nuances.
With the movie having a very low production budget (i.e. $5 million), Ma’s technical / filmmaking presentation isn’t exactly on par with a summertime blockbuster or a studio backed bio-drama piece. That being said, the movie itself doesn’t really demand an excessive budget and certainly work within its financial means. In a nutshell, Taylor and his team utilize their film budget wisely and in the right places, which is probably majority spent on getting the cast. Thus, the film’s background and setting pieces isn’t anything flashy and visual, but (again) the story never really demands it. This makes the efforts made by Christina Voss (cinematography), Megan Coates (costume designs), and Carmen Navis and Angela Gail Schroder (set decorations) done well enough to make the feature appealing. In addition, while the music score, which was composed by Gregory Tripi, hits all the right melodic notes, especially during suspenseful thrilling moments, the film does feature a few recognizable music song selections that are fun to hear in the movie.
There are several problems with Ma that the movie can’t rectify quickly and / or not enough, which renders the movie is in adequate / mediocre cinematic light. Why? Well, for starters, Taylor gives the movie a vehicle for Spencer to drive. Meaning…that this is Spencer’s film and she shines the best and brightest…. much like what actress Angelina Jolie did in 2014’s Maleficent. While that’s normally good (especially since the main character is the feature’s true strength), the rest of the film feels naturally subpar and doesn’t quite measure up. Thus, Ma is built around Spencer’s performance / character, while everything else is just mediocre. The narrative being told is part of that particular problem, with Landes story / script being both problematic and formulaic throughout. What’s problematic about is that it movie never goes deep enough into Sue Ann’s backstory. What’s presented works, but its something that could’ve been easily expanded upon and presented in a better way. As for the formulaic part, Taylor shapes Ma to be the run-of-the-mill psychological horror thriller that we (as viewers) have seeing many times over. Thus, Taylor nor Landes script brings anything relatively new to the film, which makes Ma predictable right from the beginning and follows a familiar and commonplace narrative path.
What’s even more prevalent is that the movie isn’t truly scary as it wants to be or what it was being promised to be. Of course, there are few moments that are definitely creepy and ultimately work, but its hard original / creative to be quite memorable on its own right. Even more frustrating is that those moments come towards the latter half of the feature. Another problem that the movie faces is in the stupidly horror clichés that teenagers make throughout the feature. Yes, we all know that high school teenagers are foolish, pigheaded, obnoxious, and don’t really think things through and Hollywood has utilized that stereotypical adolescent persona on various occasions to presents situations in horror movies. Naturally, it’s heavily used in Ma and it becomes a bit redundant from the go, with some of Maggie’s friends making stupid comments here and there and making incredibly foolish errors in the movie. Again, I understand that it is a “movie world” and all that, but these tropes have done and redone many times over that it’s becoming stale. I definitely would’ve liked to see something better and more developed rather than dealing with the classic “stupid” teens in a horror movie. All of these criticisms make Ma feels like it has some good ideas (and a great setup), but fails to live up to its promise of being scarily horror thriller.
Perhaps the true highlight of the movie is in seeing actress Octavia Spencer play the film’s antagonist character of Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington and deliver a wholesome performance in the role. Known of her roles in The Help, The Shack, and Hidden Figures, Spencer gives such a terrific (and almost unexpected) performance. She definitely makes the character her own and her Oscar-winning talents are graciously utilized for this particular role. What’s probably a cliché architype build for a character like Sue Ann, Spencer gives a well-roundedness her portrayal of the character, making us feel her plight and how she ultimately becomes unhinged; traveling down a dark and twisted path. In lesser hands, the character of Sue Ann could’ve been played in a sort of “paint by numbers” way, but Spencer gives the character such great nuances (both in a sympathetic and creepy way) that it makes it that much more rewarding to see how it all plays out with “Ma”.
Looking beyond Spencer’s performance, the movie is heavily populated with younger talents that make up the various high school teens that Sue Ann lures into a party antics. At the head of this collection of young actors / actresses is actress Diana Silvers, who plays the character of Maggie Thompson (the somewhat main protagonist character in the film). Silvers, known for her roles in Glass, Booksmart, and Into the Dark, does a pretty good job in playing the role of Maggie, who the movie’s story revolves around. Like the film itself, the character of Maggie isn’t quite original or fully complexed, but gets the job done in this premise from start to finish. Everyone else in the grouping, such as actress McKaley Miller (Hart of Dixie and Scream Queens) as Haley, actor Corey Fogelmanis (Girl Meets World and PrankMe) as Andy Hawkins, actor Gianni Paolo (Power and The Fosters) as Chaz, actor Dante Brown (Mr. Robinson and Lethal Weapon) as Darrell, and actress Margaret Fegan (Cruise) as Stephanie, play the rest of Maggie’s high school friends. The acting talents for these individual characters are fine, but they simply play the classic cliché high school teens in a horror movie…. making stupid decisions and the like. Additionally, actress Tanyell Waivers (Gothic Harvest and Queen Sugar) does a good job in her role (character name is Genie) that I can’t mention because it would spoil the movie.
The rest of the supporting players are most of the seasoned talents, including actress Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers and August: Osage County) as Erica Thompson (Maggie’s mom), actor Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast and Fast & Furious 6) as Ben Hawkins (Andy’s dad), actor Dominic Burgess (Feud and Santa Clarita Diet) as Stu (Erica’s co-worker), actress Missi Pyle (Gone Girl and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as Mercedes (Ben’s girlfriend), and actress Allison Janney (The Help and The West Wing) as Dr. Brooks (Sue Ann’s boss). Most of these characters play a certain role in Ma (with some playing larger parts than others) and are well-acted by their actors / actresses playing them. Again, these are supporting players and mostly frame the feature with a few playing roles in the main storyline thread. As a side-note, director Tate Taylor does make a small cameo appearance in the film as Officer Grainger.
Maggie Thompson and her friends get in way over their heads when they soon become a point of fixation for a psychotic middle-age woman in the movie Ma. Director Tate Taylor latest film projects sees the classic horror trope of a psychological killer and presents its narrative within teenager slasher mindset of a horrible scenario gone terrible wrong. While the movie definitely gives actress Octavia Spencer a new theatrical sandbox to play around in (a great and creepy performance in the film) as well as some entertainment value, the rest of the feature follows a predictable path, including several common clichés stereotypes found in horror endeavor and just never really becomes super scary, lacking originality and creativity in this otherwise formulaic story. To me, I thought that this movie was adequately okay. Of course, Spencer was absolutely great in it (especially since she really not known for playing a character like this before), but the rest of the movie was pretty “meh” and could’ve been better. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is an “iffy choice” as some might love the movie (horror fans out there), while others will dismiss it altogether. It’s one of those movies that will have divide amongst its viewers, so I guess it’s really in the “eye of the beholder” …. sort of speak. In the end, Ma gets the job done (entertainment-wise) in its creepy psychotic killer mindset, but falters in its execution and originality. It’s definitely not a “slam dunk” win for Blumhouse, but it’s nice to see that the studio is trying need things to shake up their foothold in today’s current horror genre.
3.1 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)
Released On: May 31st, 2019
Reviewed On: June 17th, 2019
Ma is 99 minutes long and is rated R for violent / disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use