‘MA’ is a wickedly amusing horror thriller, but not of the supernatural kind. It’s more about a psychopath, like “Misery” with Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning performance and the more recent “Greta” starring French icon Isabelle Huppert, both about seemingly kind-hearted strangers who win the confidence of unsuspecting victims before showing their true psychopathic colors.
Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) follows the familiar formula but he has something else up his sleeve. This is shown in a back story that unfolds gradually in flashback scenes that gives the material a new dimension. The story starts with Maggie (Diana Silvers), a teenager who has just left California and moved in with her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis, who starred in a similar 1991 pscyho-thriller, “Cape Fear”), to the small town in Ohio where her mom was born and raised.
Maggie is able to make friends in high school quickly, including the good looking Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) who becomes her love interest, the carefree Haley (McKaley Miller), the hunky Chas (Gianni Paolo) and the token black guy, Darrel (Dante Brown). She joins them in their drinking binge, but since they’re minors and can’t legally buy intoxicating drinks, Maggie is ordered to request a stranger, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for “The Help”), to buy booze for them.
Sue Ann, a veterinary technician, refuses at first but when she sees Andy, it rings a bell for her and she agrees. She is so kind she also offers to them her own basement in her house in the woods as a venue where they can hang out and party. But she has a warning: they should never use the name of the Lord in vain, one of them should always stay sober and they are forbidden to go up to her place upstairs. Of course, it’s easy to assume the teenagers will be breaking the house rules that she has laid out for them.
It’s Maggie who initially smells something suspicious. There must be something too good to be true with this middle-aged black woman they call Ma who willingly does illegal things and opens her home for party-oriented young people. Eventually, we learn about Sue Ann’s secret past, and it has something to do with Maggie’s mom and also Andy’s dad, Ben (Luke Evans).
It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are easily put together. If you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ll more or less have an idea of where it’s all going and how it ends us a nightmare for the teenagers involved. The film succeeds in building up the suspense.
Spencer has played good helpful characters in films like “The Help”, “Hidden Figures”, “The Shape of Water” and she even played God in “The Shack”. Here, she plays against type and brings nasty nuances to her role that is actually not far from Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. She is given a seemingly good-natured personality and a relatable motive ala-”Carrie” that sheds light, but most certainly does not excuse, her subsequent violent behavior.
Spencer actually kind of sneaks up on the viewer as tell tale signs of her being unhinged start to mount up and she becomes the teeners’ veritable stalker even online. She could have played the lunatic bit non stop and let all hell break loose. But she seems to be having fun with her offbeat role and actually makes us somehow care for the character of Sue Ann. She also longs for acceptance and her break down as she sobs after someone she helped rejects her is quite touching.
She’s well-supported by Diana Silvers as the new girl in town who has a pretty good relationship with her mom. Also in the supporting cast are Oscar-winner Allison Janney as Dr. Brooks, Sue Ann’s boss; Missy Pyle as Mercedes, Luke’s floozy girlfriend who becomes Sue Ann’s first victim; and Kyanna Simpson as the young Sue Ann.
The movie is a slow burn and you keep on waiting for something big to happen until the slasher climax shows revenge for sins done in the past. This includes the bullying and racial discrimination Sue Anne experienced in the hands of her classmates before. But the movie ends too abruptly. You feel you’re still waiting for something else to happen. “Ma” is a big hit in the U.S., as produced by Blumhouse, the same company that also made the horror hits “Insidious”, “Happy Death Day”, “Get Out” and “Us”. It was made for only $5 million and it has since grossed $45 million, so are they thinking of coming up with a sequel? We won’t be surprised as Sue Ann’s ending in the movie is most certainly not definitive.