Ma Review: Octavia Spencer's Psychotic Potential Is Squandered in This Tonally Uneven Thriller

When it comes to horror subgenres, there are few that are more terrifying than stories focused on stalkers. What makes them so unsettling is that, despite the audience fully realizing that the actions of the stalker are wrong, these films often paint the characters in a way that evokes empathy in the viewer, making their actions almost seem justified. Additionally, every viewer likely has the experience of a romantic partner who refuses to let go, a friend who crosses a boundary, or even a stranger acting too familiar. In the case of Ma, the narrative has the potential to offer surprising twists on well-worn territory, only to fail both narratively and tonally in any effective capacity.

In the film, Erica (Juliette Lewis) moves her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) back to her old home town, forcing the pair to make the best of a bad situation. After Maggie befriends some fellow teens, the group attempts to score booze from a stranger outside of a liquor store, with a reluctant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) caving in to help the teens. The friends take advantage of this friendliness, returning to Sue Ann to supply them with booze, only for the lovingly nicknamed "Ma" to open up her home to them as she begins to invade their lives in terrifying ways.

While most horror movies featuring stalkers feel so effective due to how grounded in reality they feel, Ma throws its believability out the window within the first 20 minutes. The best stalker films will either endear you to the stalker or deliver a narrative reason why the characters fall victim to the torment. With Cape Fear, the creepy Max Cady keeps just enough distance that authorities aren't allowed to press charges. With Fear, hunky David uses his good looks and charm to manipulate Nicole and her family to dig his claws into her. In the case of Ma, however, teens think it's a good idea to drive to a stranger's house on their second meeting with them, despite the decades of stories about adults abducting teenagers. For the rest of the film, it's difficult to feel any empathy for the victims as they continue to make the most irrational decisions when faced with any sort of situation where they could distance themselves from Ma and the bizarre infatuation she has with them.

Attempting to apply too much logic to a horror film isn't always a valid use of time, but with this specific subgenre relying so much on reality, Ma feels completely oblivious to what makes these types of films successful. The film was written by Scotty Landes and directed by Tate Taylor, whose filmmaking careers have largely been comprised of dramas and comedies up to this point. This isn't to say that you need to have written or directed multiple horror films to make a successful one, but, with Taylor having previously directed Spencer's Oscar-winning performance in The Help, the whole project feels like it was crafted by people tangentially aware with horror who deliver all the bullet points while never quite understanding what makes such films so entertaining.

Spencer is really the only thing that works in the film, and she only barely manages to scrape by. The actress' talents allow her to quickly switch back and forth between sweet and endearing to creepy, though the material fails her. She's never allowed to go completely unhinged and chew the scenery, which could have helped convey to the audience just how far this film was willing to go. Instead, even at her most deranged, it feels as though she's being held back by both the script and the direction. The character manages to both be given too much backstory while also not enough. There are tragic and traumatic events in her history, which, at times, feel as though there is a master plan at work, only for her actions to then be shown as far more erratic and unpredictable. Certain scenes imply that Ma has merely snapped, only for other scenes to confirm that she has been embracing her darker nature for years. If nothing else, Ma could open the door for Spencer to return to the horror world with a story that will allow her to show all her talents.

Ma often approaches high levels of camp and exploitation, yet never fully embraces the absurdity of the scenario. Audiences are left wondering whether the should be laughing with the film or at it. There are genuinely comedic moments, yet countless moments in which the characters react in such nonsensical ways, they become unintentionally laughable. While the film is rated R, it's well into the first act before the script embraces four-letter words, yet refrains from showing anything too gruesome. It's as if the film was shot in both PG-13 and R versions, only for the studio to blend them together in way that feels like a water-downed version of a bonkers crowd-pleaser that never holds back.

It's far from an abysmal affair, as it does have multiple effective sequences, yet Ma struggles with not knowing what it wants to be while also failing to be a fully realized version of anything, while Spencer attempts to shine in a sea of characters constantly making decisions that no real person would ever make.

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Rating: 2 out of 5

Ma lands in theaters on May 31st.