It’s always exciting when a consistently brilliant character actor gets a leading role they can sink their teeth into but nothing can really prepare you for how much fun Octavia Spencer is having in the title role of Tate Taylor’s gleefully outrageous horror Ma. The Oscar-winning star of Hidden Figures and The Shape Of Water takes centre stage with a magnificent performance that is at once creepy and hilarious, skin-crawling and sympathetic. While there’s a lot of work put in to make sure that we keep rooting for plucky teen heroine Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers, continuing to impress), there’s never any question whose film this is.
Which is just as well, given that the rest of the movie covers such familiar ground. New girl Maggie arrives in her newly single mum Erica’s (a perfectly cast Juliette Lewis) home town and quickly makes friends with an amiable bunch of teens. When they ask passer-by Sue-Ann (Spencer) to buy some booze for them, the kindly woman takes pity on the kids and before long she’s offered to let them drink in her basement. Suddenly, Ma’s is the go-to party destination for the entire high school but her hospitality comes with clinginess…why does she really want to be part of their lives?
There’s nothing unusual about a horror movie hinging on the plot-friendly poor decisions of dumb teenagers out to party, but this group is so spectacularly trusting that the viewer’s own trust in the film is shaken early on. It doesn’t help that Taylor keeps things pretty low-key in the first half, relying on Spencer’s star turn and a supporting cast of game returning collaborators (Allison Janney, Missi Pyle, Luke Evans) to mask the script’s shortcomings.
However, the easy-going campiness suddenly shifts into outrageous (but still campy) craziness once Maggie decides that she’s had enough of Ma’s bizarre mind-games and their host snaps. When the gloves are off there’s a huge amount of fun to be had and shocked giggles are to be expected.
Taylor, making his horror debut after the likes of The Help and The Girl On The Train, makes some effort to explore the isolation and abusive behaviour that have made Sue-Ann the woman that she is (Chambers star Kyanna Simone Simpson is great as the younger character in flashbacks) and the issue of race is occasionally brought out of subtext for a moment or two. However, there’s nothing too surprising here and, again, most of the nuance comes from Spencer’s performance.
The script and some choppy editing ensure that this is never more than a fun Friday night horror flick, but it certainly is that and there’s no question that Ma gives us a star turn to remember.