Who knew Octavia Spencer would be the perfect actress to portray a 2019 version of Margaret White, the overbearing mother role that earned Piper Laurie an Oscar nomination for 1976’s “Carrie”? Probably only Spencer herself, who turns in a brilliantly campy performance in the otherwise serviceable high school horror flick “Ma.” Updated for the times, Spencer’s Ma is certainly much hipper than Margaret — she attempts to connect with others by buying booze, not peddling scripture.
Spencer’s “The Help” director Tate Taylor helms a script by “Workaholics” writer Scotty Landes. Taylor is a workmanlike director, having dabbled in various genres. While his horror aesthetic isn’t necessarily memorable, the pace of “Ma” zips along while providing a foundation for Landes’ increasingly bonkers script (and most importantly, Spencer’s creepy-larious performance).
Landes’ story relies on high school and horror movie archetypes to build the world, which is a tale about the way youthful trauma cycles over and over throughout a life. What makes it different is the placement of an older black woman as the fulcrum of the story, as both a victim and a villain who enacts her long-held revenge.
Although “Ma” comes from “Get Out” producer Jason Blum and his production company Blumhouse, this isn’t quite searing social commentary. Race is only briefly alluded to, though it’s an undercurrent that simmers beneath the story. In the hands of nonwhite filmmakers, it could have perhaps become a more open conversation within the film. Instead, Landes and Taylor deliver a thriller romp that delights in surface pleasures but doesn’t get too deep.
Diana Silvers stars as Maggie, the new girl in school who has moved back to her mom’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown after her parents’ divorce. She falls in with the cool kids, who encounter the friendly vet tech Sue Ann (Spencer) one night while they’re trying to score beer. Soon, Sue Ann has invited them to party in her basement, under the auspices she’s glad they’re safe. But Sue Ann, whom the teens nickname “Ma,” sure does enjoy drinking with her new underage pals. As the crew dances to disco and ’80s tunes in her basement, beholden to her hospitality, Ma gets to relive her high school years as the most popular girl in school. And she doesn’t like to drink alone.
The intuitive Maggie’s hackles are raised by Ma’s clinginess and flirtations with her boyfriend, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). And that’s even before she discovers all the old yearbook photos and hears the things that go bump in the night in Ma’s house while everyone is otherwise indisposed. While the audience gets to go on this wild ride with Ma, deep into her own high school history to understand the deep-seated trauma that fuels her vengeful actions, we still never really understand what Ma wants. That both works for the movie — ratcheting up the suspense because you just never know what Ma is going to do — and against it, because by the end, her actions just seem random and chaotic.
The true auteur on display in “Ma” is Spencer, who gives the movie its uniquely wild edge. Known for her lovable roles in “The Help” and “Hidden Figures,” Spencer goes dark and sadistic with an enthusiastic glee, her signature smile (and those bangs!), and she creates one of the most memorable horror villains in recent history. She makes “Ma” worth it.