*. Oh, darn. This could have been good. The cast is more than capable, and not just Octavia Spencer (who actually plays a bit off, in my opinion). Diana Silvers as the heroine and Juliette Lewis as her mom are both excellent. The story is classic ’80s horror, the killer taking revenge for a slight that goes back to high school, but the set-up also reminded me a lot of Don’t Breathe, which was a recent movie I rather liked.
*. But the film doesn’t go there. Or anywhere. Spencer never gets to gear up to full crazy, which is what I was most looking forward to. I’m bewildered by the number of reviewers who praised her performance for being camp or over-the-top. She seems subdued to me.
*. The violence at the end is more stupid than shocking. There’s nothing like that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe, and certainly nothing like the sinister nurse figures who deal out the pain in Misery and Audition. Drawing a comparison to those two movies may seem unfair, but if you’re going to invoke the classics, and I think Ma does, then you have to be able to take it.
*. The background story for Spencer’s Sue Ann is perfunctory, and was indeed slapped onto a script that originally provided no explanation for why she was so disturbed. But I don’t think we needed any back story. To go back to the movies I just mentioned, the motivations of Annie and Asami are both left deliberately vague. Are we supposed to feel sympathy for Sue Ann? And what are we to make of her love for Ben? I don’t think any of this helps. This is a movie where it’s very clear right from the start where it’s going and then it takes too long to get there. Director Tate Taylor doesn’t have any feel for horror so there’s no suspense, or jump scares, and all that part of the movie falls flat. Say what you will about the formulaic filmmaking of James Wan and his ilk, but at least it delivers the creeps.
*. Sue Ann was not originally written as a black character either, and so the movie makes almost no reference to race (except for a weird bit at the end that just made me shake my head). In fact, and unlike a lot of contemporary horror, there’s really no social commentary here at all. There was certainly a place for it — teens drinking too much, adults as enablers, the pitfalls of social media — but nothing is made of any of this. Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix thought the film “signals allegorical importance,” but I don’t see where it even makes a gesture toward such meaning.
*. I don’t understand critics. I’ve mentioned how I don’t see anything in Spencer’s performance that connects to how a lot of reviewers described it. I don’t see what St. Félix is talking about. Rex Reed has some reputation for saying bitchy things about movies he seems not to have watched (see my notes on V/H/S/2), but his review of Ma is ridiculous: “In a violent, stupid and nauseating creature feature called Ma, she [Spencer] plays a cruel, bloodthirsty monster who tortures and kills off half of a suburban town for fun.” Kills off half a town? I believe the body count is two.
*. Well, I enjoyed watching Spencer and Silver and Lewis. But it all has an empty feel to it and there’s no payoff at the end (and lest you get your hopes up, the alternate ending included with the DVD is even worse). The whole thing seems underwritten, leaving a host of interesting angles unexplored. Just the parallel between then and now should have been a lot more fun — with the old songs getting contemporary makeovers being a perfect entry point. But again nothing much is done with this, and the cast, along with the rest of the film, is left high and dry.