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Review: Octavia Spencer goes off the rails in campy thriller 'Ma'

 Courtesy of Universal 


Horror films have been messing with and murdering oblivious teenagers for decades, a formula that’s hardly tinkered with (save for maybe something like “The Cabin in The Woods.”) In the new Blumhouse thriller “Ma” - nothing really changes when it comes to kids being tormented, except “Ma” has the added pedigree of Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (in her first true starring vehicle) reteaming with “The Help” director Tate Taylor - and the film only works because of her dedication to how ridiculous the whole movie is.

Like all films about obsessive stalkers, “Ma” starts in a quiet and rural town of Ohio, where a bunch of horny and alcohol craving teens are trying to party. For Maggie (Diana Silvers - “Booksmart”) who just moved back to her mom Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown, she connects right away with a squad of kids at her new school. On the first night Maggie hangs out with her new friends, they take turns trying to get adults to buy them booze from the liquor store, and Sue Ann (Spencer) a lonely vet tech, decides to lend a helping hand.

Soon, she’s not just buying them alcohol anymore; she starts throwing ragers in her basement for Maggie, her friends, and even more kids from school, and eventually takes on the nickname “Ma.” Everything seems fine, until, well, it isn’t - as Maggie and her friends try to pull back the reins on their somewhat strange relationship with Sue Ann, she starts sending relentless text messages, Snapchat videos that are far too creepy and push things in a far darker direction.

It’s a familiar troupe used more effectively in other worthier films, but Spencer hones in on the camp of the script and truly lets loose with the material, I mean the script practically screams “This is a B movie” on every page, and Taylor along with his writer Scotty Landes, take every chance they can to exaggerate how silly this all feels. Too bad the film attempts to make a statement regarding one woman’s mental illness as a result of trauma she faced in her past. Coming across as a weird version of “Carrie,” those flashback scenes of Sue Ann as a teen never click, with Landes and Taylor second guessing themselves at almost every corner.

On the other hand, Octavia Spencer gives more than this schlock micro budgeted Blumhouse thriller deserves; watching her communicate with just her eyes or a tiny spasm in her smile really speaks to the film, and it’s clear she knows this character inside and out. Sue Ann is an outrageous representation of a serial killer and somehow or another Spencer feels like the perfect fit and uses her daft physicality to elevate the overall quality of the film.

Luke Evans from “The Alienist” stops by for an extended cameo as a former classmate of Sue Ann, who may or may not be on to what she’s doing - and if you look hard enough you’ll spot Allison Janney (another Oscar winner) in a hilarious supporting role too - both roles and actors are so extra you’ll almost wish they’d wink at the camera.

But alas the final stretch is what sets “Ma” back, as the film ditches the character building and becomes a full blown horror film, and when that happens all the violence seems misplaced. Not to mention it disregards a classic first act that builds genuine and creepy suspense, only to fake us out at the finale (If the implied sequel isn’t called “Pa” - I’ll rage).

It’s a shame because “Ma” could have easily been the next midnight-madness exploitation savvy camp classic had it not opted for an emotional crux that never feels earned. But even with those odds against it, credit must be given to Spencer for creating - no matter the quality of the picture - one of more memorable horror movie villains as of late. She holds the more silly plot threads together, and makes the bumpy ride somewhat worth the gamble.

Grade: C+

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