Monday, September 30, 2019

Ma Knows Best

Anyone who's ever spent more than three minutes talking to me (be they friends or delivery people) knows that few genres excite me more than that of the psycho-biddy, often better known as hagsploitation but more classily referred to as Grande Dame Guignol. While it tends to offer more promises than satisfaction, the idea of casting middle aged women at the core of horror, often as both protagonists and antagonists (and occasionally at the very same time) is so darn refreshing for a genre that seems to feed on the young. 

It's been a lifetime since Auntie Roo chased some children and Baby Jane twirled her ice cream cones on that black and white beach, but there's a slight chance of hope that we're reviving the trope, at least if mid-budget studio horror of 2019 has anything to say about it. 

Quick Plot: Young Maggie has just moved back to her single mom's childhood town. Being a pretty white girl means she has an awful hard time fitting in, so much so that it takes a full half day before she's getting drunk with the cool kids in the local rubble park. Since Maggie and her new brood (somewhat) look their 16 years of age, they hang around outside a convenience store hoping to find someone over 21 to buy their booze.

Enter Sue Ann, a lonely vet tech who finds herself charmed by the teenagers, so much so that she invites them home to party in her very own basement. Before the semester is over, Sue Ann (who prefers to be called the titular Ma) has become the high school's most popular girl, hosting regular keggers as she tries to reclaim her own teen years.

As you might guess, Sue Ann isn't the healthiest or well-est adjusted of all adult figures. Played with a ferocious juiciness by Octavia Spencer, Ma is the kind of character you rarely find at the center of a film, much less one in the horror genre. 

Horror filmmakers can be very, very dumb.

Much like (the much worse) Greta, Ma's first mistake is that it doesn't quite trust its older, phenomenal lead actress to fully take charge. Spencer is clearly relishing her chance at playing the big bad, and Ma is never more alive than when she's being belligerent to her boss (Allison Janney! Playing second fiddle to Octavia Spencer in a horror movie! THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING!) or flirty with Maggie's dumber than vaping fumes boyfriend. The problem, just like Greta, is that the film thinks we actually care about Maggie and her concern for a group of friends so bland I can't remember how many of them there actually was.

It's not the young actors are bad. They're just young pretty teenagers attempting to carry a genre flick that could be dancing on the pinky of its real lead.

Truthfully, Ma is kind of a mess of a movie. Scotty Landes' script apparently ended up at Blumhouse at the perfect moment for director Tate Taylor (The Help) to discover it might just be the vehicle he was seeking to give his friend Spencer a meaty lead role. On paper, Sue Ann was a white woman with no backstory. With Spencer aboard, the project evolved.

If only it had a little more time to collect itself. While Ma is certainly entertaining, the 100 minute runtime is so stuffed with hastily handled side stories that it's impossible to find any footing. Crammed into the plot is a tale of '80s slasher nerd vengeance, Munchausen by proxy abuse, a torture den, and Juliette Lewis learning how to be a casino dealer. It's a little much.

High Points
Octavia Spencer is a pure delight, and for as much as this movie doesn't rise to her level, her performance is still something to see. Some bonus points to the always reliable Missi Pyle as a mean girl-turned-middle aged blousy alcoholic mean girl who gets glorious comeuppance

Low Points
Mild spoilers: I didn't necessarily need the blood of youth on Ma's hands, but her choice of murder victims (ultimately all adults, some from her past, one inexplicably from her present) seems a little bit of a cheat 

Does the Dog...
There are MANY scenes of Sue Ann being iffy with four legged patients and casting threatening glances at Maggie's beloved old lab Louie's way, but thankfully (and unlike the here's-one-more-reason-to-hate Greta), no canine is irrevocably hurt 

Am I Overthinking This Or...
I realize my adoration of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? colors a LOT of how I see the world, but could there be anything deliberate in casting Dominic Burgess as Juliette Lewis's coworker Stu? It's the kind of unnecessary role that could have been easily eliminated with no real loss to the film, but perhaps the only real reason to maintain it in the final cut is how much Burgess resembles Jane's scheming accompanist played to such perfection by Victor Buono

Lessons Learned
The modern gingerbread house was not built on sweets but on non-expired pizza rolls

Horse tranquilizers are great for fighting migraines

If you quit before you reach the haggard age of 25, you'll face no negative effects of smoking


Ma is not a well-paced or overly well-made movie, but it's something different. There's probably just too much on its mind it wants to do to get any of it done well, but how often do you get to see Oscar winner Octavia Spencer doing the robot in a bedazzled hat before sewing head cool girl's mouth shut? It's certainly something. 

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