It’s always interesting when directors branch out of their comfort zone, especially when they’re sometimes so far away from it. I gotta say, going from drama to horror would be especially tough. While they can certainly have characters and story, horror films are more about the experience over emotional investment. If you can tell a good story, great, but if you’re going for scares and thrills, you need to build a palpable atmosphere and tone, all with a great sense of tension. Otherwise, what is there to really be afraid of? 

Teenager Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) and her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have just moved back to their hometown after Erica’s recent divorce. Maggie makes quick friends at school and one day while they’re out and about trying to score alcohol, they persuade the sassy old lady Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) to buy them booze. Sue Ann is concerned about the teens going out to drink, drive, and party, so she offers for them to come to her place. Turns out she has a pretty sick place and it becomes the biggest party pad in town. She’s the life of the party and very nurturing, with the kids referring to her as Ma. However, there’s clearly a sinister and crazy side to Sue Ann, as she clearly has bigger plans than just partying. 

After I first saw the trailer for Ma and did my research, I was surprised to see Tate Taylor directing. I haven’t seen either of his other films, but it was just incredibly odd seeing the director of The Help helming what seemed to be a schlocky horror picture. The Help was well received, so I’m sure the guy has a good handle on drama, and he handles all of the dramatic aspects here very well. While Sue Anne is clearly bad news, Taylor and his co-writer Scott Landes craft a compelling character with a really tragic and twisted past. Her backstory is doled out in some flashbacks here and there, but they felt a bit too few and far between to really give it the impact. Octavia Spencer is just the best, though. She might be the queen of “Actresses Who Deserve to be in Much Better Films”, and it’s certainly the case here. She carries the movie completely and has this great presence, mostly because she’s so relentless in her pursuit of the kids. She gets to really let loose during the campy last act, with a lot of hilarious, over the top line delivery. She’s definitely the bright spot in this slog, but the whole cast is pretty good. It’s always nice to see Allison Janney, Juliette Lewis, and Missi Pyle. 

There are a lot of great elements here, but Taylor has no command of atmosphere or tone. Like, at all. There was never a moment where I felt any bit of dread, or genuine suspense. There are a lot of nice shots, especially some split diopter ones, but never shots that attempt to build any suspense. A killer synth score pops in and out every now and then, but since it’s only used twice, it feels incredibly out of place. Would have at least gave the movie some atmosphere. I loved the premise, but nothing’s really done with it. I’ve always been able to suspend my disbelief pretty well in horror films when it comes to dumb characters, but it was just too much here. The anti-climactic, silly ending certainly didn’t justify the lack of buildup and poor execution. Character driven horror films are perfectly fine, but they still need to feel like horror films. Just look at something like The Babadook, which is incredibly creepy and utilizes the horror elements well, all while telling a compelling story. 

The character of Sue Anne is interesting, mostly because of Spencer’s performance, but there are too many characters to care about, and too much story to tell for the film’s short runtime. Ironic, considering I felt like I was in there for forever by the end. There’s not really a main story or main character. Spencer is obviously the star, but the main character and story seem to be Maggie and her relationship with her mom. They clearly have a very close relationship and from the beginning, and you can see where the story is going, with Sue Anne becoming more of a mother figure. Well, that doesn’t really happen. There are just so many things set up that don’t feel sufficiently resolved. Most horror films need a big, crazy ending, so you need to build up to that, especially if you start off more dramatic. It wasn’t a great film, but Greta handled that aspect much better, with a slow increase from drama to schlock. This not only felt too abrupt, but also nowhere near as over the top as it should have been. 

Ma constantly teetered on the line between drama and horror that it was hard for me to be emotionally invested or in suspense. Tate Taylor is definitely a talented drama director with a good eye and works great with actors, but as a horror director, he’s just not there. Spencer was a joy to watch, as she provided for some great camp, but there just wasn’t enough of that camp to make for an entertaining horror film. I wouldn’t want go to Ma’s just because she might kill me or something, but because it just seems so boring. 


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