At a time when both coming-of-age and horror movies are on the up, it’s logical that Blumhouse, the company behind the Oscar-nominated Get Out and the teen-slasher franchise Happy Death Day, would come up with something like Ma—a mutant that is at once a high school dramedy and a back-to-basics scary movie. Maggie (Diana Silvers, also currently starring in Booksmart) is a 16-year-old girl who moves with her single mother Erica (the great Juliette Lewis) back to the small town where she grew up. At school, Maggie quickly befriends a clique of teens who invite her to ride in their old van and drink booze after class. The only adult who will buy alcohol for these underage partiers is Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged woman whose understanding of teenage needs runs deep; she invites her new protégés to party in her basement, rather than drink and drive. Young people lured by alcohol into a strange woman’s home: a genuine horror movie premise as old as Hansel and Gretel.
For most of its runtime, Ma is a mildly amusing and slow-paced hangout film more than a chilling mystery slasher. Maggie soon develops a crush on sweet boy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), and in this modern version of the teen movie, she isn’t bullied by anyone despite her newcomer status. Everyone gets on well and no one does anything more illegal than drink alcohol and smoke some pot, if not always in moderation. When Sue Ann finally appears, she’s a gregarious if evidently lonely woman; the jump scares are mostly derived from her suddenly showing up to surprise them in the school’s parking lot. That these charming but blank characters lack distinctive personalities needn’t be an issue in a horror film—the genre relies heavily on archetypes—but when the real chills repeatedly hinted at take more than half of the film to start hitting, we aren’t left with much to hang on to.
In place of interesting characters, Ma doubles-down on casting. It’s a joy to see Juliette Lewis again, Allison Janney (in a wig) as Sue Ann’s impatient veterinary boss, and Luke Evans as Andy’s bad dad. These talented, essentially overqualified performers anchor the film in a realistic universe, but their star status also makes them too real: They’re conspicuous by their mere presence and seem to have walked onto the wrong film set.
Reunited with The Help director Tate Taylor, Spencer plays Sue Ann relatively straight. The character gains the trust of her new young friends with a mix of motherly attention (hence the nickname “Ma”) and down-with-the-kids ease. Yet it is this confident performance that makes both Ma and Ma forgettable: Even when the vengeful woman scrolls Facebook and Instagram to gain insights into her prey’s lives, she is only a little bit funny when she could and should have been hilariously creepy. Her task may, in reality, require her to be calm and collected, but one wishes her malice was more unhinged, her gestures brusquer and charged with resentment—more in line with outrageous horror movie tropes. Ma feels like a missed opportunity for Spencer to have some unbridled fun.
The film attempts to compensate for this PG-13 Riverdale-ness with an increasing (if very delayed) series of violent outbursts in its final act. Sue Ann gets her revenge on the rule of popular high schoolers in creative ways that are nevertheless lame and tame: She drugs the kids with free drinks and inflicts upon them various symbolic but not always scary torture tactics—very much the handiwork of a middle-aged, reclusive woman, executed with a casualness that could have been terrifying if the film around her hadn’t already been so pedestrian (and the trailer hadn’t already spoiled them).
There’s a sense of forced campiness to Ma, which places it in the recent lineage of Neil Jordan’s more successful Isabelle Huppert tribute Greta and, more recently, Netflix’s ludicrous and tedious The Perfection. Because they are so scattershot, the moments of grotesque horror in these films don’t seem to emerge from the story’s natural progression toward madness. Instead, they feel forced, added in to make the audience scream in disbelief and laugh at its bold lunacy. This isn’t camp; it’s crap.
It is with the same dull, tokenistic approach that Ma deals with the hardly avoidable political aspect of its story. The fact that Sue Ann is African American and that all the kids she attacks (save for one) are white is not completely meaningless, but its significance is lazily and tastelessly overlooked. Ma’s anger may stem from feelings of gross injustice and discrimination, but the film cares little about that: The innocence of Maggie and her friends is deemed both more important and more interesting than whatever Ma has gone through in the past. The mystery of her wrath is revealed as a side note, and the film ends, astonishingly, with a reference to Brian De Palma’s Carrie that reverses the classic film’s heartbreaking message. Ma is a film begging to be mocked, but also one that mocks its own characters. It’s lose-lose.