Making Octavia Spencer the villain in a horror movie is one of those ideas that only seems great in retrospect. After all, Spencer's famous persona is the stoic, put-upon matriarch, usually one in a position of service to others, and she's carried her weary frown and warm, easy hugs to awards glory in The Help, Fruitvale Station, Hidden Figures,and The Shape of Water... and for a while entered Typecast Valley with The Shack, Gifted, and on and on. There was a period where it just seemed like the actress would be stuck in the roles of mother or maid.
So in Ma, the latest cheapo shocker from Blumhouse Productions, Spencer tweaks her goodness for evil. She's still abnormally welcoming, and she still doles out hugs, but now there's something sinister behind the generosity, a glassy-eyed stare crying out for a different kind of attention. And she's tweaking something else, too. In the land of teenagers, the middle-aged are typically sexless, dumpy non-entities: their best years behind them, their present life only noteworthy inasmuch as they can be useful to the teenagers. So this woman wins the trust of a parent-deficient teen crew by appealing to their dumbest instincts: buying them lots of alcohol and offering up her creaky basement as a no-questions-asked crash pad. It's exactly the antidote to growing up that they all crave, and it comes courtesy of an actual adult.
We should be clear up front that Ma is not an especially well-made movie: It suffers from poor pacing, overly broad comedy, some truly ugly camerawork, and an empty script. But under the surface it just might be saying something, if not worthwhile, then at least not empty. The film was directed by Spencer's longtime pal Tate Taylor, who also helmed The Help, and it's fun to think of this trashy anti-prestige picture as the Us-style "tethered" to that overly safe period piece on race relations. Both are Mississippi-shot tales of a woman treated like a Mammy who carries out revenge on thoughtless white people, and they're both told through the eyes of a white girl trying to figure her own whole deal out. In fact, The Help was arguably the more disgusting movie, with its infamous pie scene, while Ma only gets around to blitzing its gross-out moments in the climax to trick us into thinking we were watching Saw.
In this case the Emma Stone role goes to Diana Silvers, whose doe-eyed high school student Maggie has just moved to town with her single mom (the overqualified Juliette Lewis). Maggie quickly joins up with a crowd of idiot partiers with names like "Haley" and "Chaz," the sort of personality-free teens you tend to see in the background of other high school movies. And that's why Spencer's Sue Ann, a veterinarian's assistant in flower scrubs and an Anton Chigurh bowl cut, can worm her way into their lives so easily: these kids are just blank slates for her to manipulate as she sees fit. The hunky dude doesn't truly exist until Ma pulls a gun on him and orders him to strip for her own amusement.
Spencer's casting, and the conspicuous 1980s-set flashbacks where Sue Ann is the only black girl in a sea of white John Hughes faces, will open Ma up to critical discussion about race in horror. But the film wasn't built to address racial themes (Spencer has said the part was written for a white woman), and instead makes its psycho a former unpopular kid out for revenge. Paternal abuse is also treated like window dressing: a later plot twist directly evokes the true-life story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, but doesn't quite think everything through.
Yet one should probably not expect too much from a movie largely set in a single basement. The only larger idea Ma is equipped to deal with is its treatment of different generational energies, with Taylor and screenwriter Scotty Landes trusting that the mere sight of a 47-year-old woman being drunk and sloppy on Snapchat will freak out the youths. But give them credit for allowing "Ma" to publicly lust after the 17-year-old lads. Her taboo-busting thirst sent the audience at one preview screening into queasy fits. Plus? It's one of the only times in Spencer's filmography when she's gone ahead and taken something for herself.