Octavia Spencer spends the majority of “Ma” wearing pink cat scrubs and a purple-striped cardigan. When it’s time for one of her infamous ragers, she changes into an all-burgundy number with a matching ’90s-style puffy newsboy cap, as she scurries between her dreary office and the liquor store, where she buys booze for a group of local teenagers. If the whole point of director Tate Taylor’s overstuffed mess of mixed horror messages could be summarized in one redeeming line, it would be when Ma tells the kids, “They didn’t have whatever Fireball is, so I got something called After Shock.”
It’s endless fun to see Spencer in such a wildly different role; she won an Oscar for her previous teaming with Taylor in “The Help,” but that’s not enough to save “Ma” from thankless material. Produced by Blumhouse, the studio behind “Get Out” and “Us,” “Ma” is clearly an attempt to hop on the socially conscious horror bandwagon, but the movie fails to meaningfully engage with its potent themes. Instead, it borrows from countless genre classics, and doesn’t give enough thought to Ma’s character to make her own story resonate. Instead, it takes an amusing premise, reduces it to its most basic parts, then weighs it down with silly scare tactics.
As the movie begins, we meet Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) as the two commiserate about being the new girl at school and work. (It doesn’t bode well for them: A sign near their new house reads “Dead End.”) Maggie quickly makes friends, scoring an invitation to hang out at the rock pile, the only decent place a kid can drink in the tiny town. Waiting outside the liquor store hoping for some stranger to take pity on them, the kids spot Sue Ann (Spencer) shuffling around with a three-legged dog. She reluctantly buys their entire list, sans Fireball, and sends them on their way. But not before checking them all out on Facebook.
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The first clue that Sue Ann isn’t what she seems arrives when she tips off the cops to the kids’ whereabouts. Next time their paths cross, she invites them to her house, promising they can drink in the basement without fear of getting caught. She earns her nickname from Darrell (Dante Brown), who asks, “You got any pizza rolls, Ma?” She raises her eyebrows skeptically — “Ma?” — but somehow rustles up some pizza rolls. Pretty soon, Ma’s house is the local hang out spot for all the teenagers, and she’s serving shooters in her newsboy cap and dancing the robot like it’s 1999.
But things weren’t so nice for Sue Ann back then, as we see in flashbacks, and clearly something dark is motivating all this vicarious hard-living. A middle-aged vet’s assistant partying with a bunch of teenagers would be creepy enough, if she wasn’t also stalking each kid and their parents on Facebook. It turns out, Sue Ann went to high school with their parents, and they weren’t so nice to her. She is particularly fond of Maggie’s boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), because she had the hots for his dad (Luke Evans) back in the day. (As Andy’s bros surmise: “That old chick wants to sit on your face, dude.”)
The suspense builds creepily enough, with a classic fake-out in a strong first act. But when the movie turns into full-blown horror, which it eventually sort of does, the pacing of the violence is all out of whack. When Ma turns, she turns hard, and there is no time to rest or build suspense again. To craft his villainess, it feels as if screenwriter Scotty Landes, having no original ideas about women characters, researched psychopaths solely on the basis of watching “Misery.”
But “Ma” really falls apart in the third act, however, when Sue Ann’s teenage humiliation is revealed and her devolution to pure villain is complete. By casting young stars and keeping the script overly simplistic, “Ma” seems clearly aimed at teens, an ambition its anti-bullying message drives home. But with its half baked conclusion, the movie ends up asking the audience to root against Sue Ann, making it just another horror movie with a one-note black villain. Too bad, because it’s a juicy role for Spencer, and she deserves better.
Universal Pictures will release “Ma” in theaters nationwide on May 31.