Octavia Spencer has finally been given a role that elevates her beyond the doldrums of cheery sidekick. After years of being side-lined in supporting roles it’s thrilling to see Spencer finally taking centre stage, in her rightful place as a leading lady.
Her performance as the lonely veterinarian nurse-turned-psycho stalker Sue Ann in Tate Taylor’s latest horror flick is one which she really gets to sink her teeth into.
The film follows Spencer’s goofy Sue Ann as she is one day approached by a group of teenagers asking her to buy them alcohol. She reluctantly agrees, but only on the condition that they do not drink and drive. The group trust Sue Ann, and as of then on she becomes their go-to adult for all their alcohol needs… though it becomes clear she may have ulterior motives.
Slowly but surely she integrates herself into their lives, becoming affectionately known as ‘Ma’ amongst the group. She offers up her basement in her isolated ranch house as a convenient party location, on the sole condition that no one goes upstairs. It’s a sweet get up. The kids get somewhere to drink and Ma gets to relive a lost youth partying with them.
The film progresses nicely and over time, Ma’s basement becomes a regular hangout spot for seemingly the whole school. Scenes of the socially awkward Ma dancing to 80s tracks in her basement with the teens seem odd, more sad than anything else, showing that this film is as much about yearning for youth as it is about violence and revenge.
Taylor builds tension well, slowly peeling away layers into Ma’s obsession. Spencer expertly shifts from a socially awkward nurse to a dangerous force reminiscent of Kathy Bates’ performance in the horror classic Misery (1990).
Scenes of Ma stalking the teens on social media and using it to infiltrate their lives, showing up at random moments are deeply unnerving, particularly in this day and age. Her stalking extends to the teens’ parents whom, it conveniently turns out, Ma went to school with.
However, flashbacks of a younger Sue Ann reveal that things weren’t exactly friendly between Ma and the other parents, played by a very convincing Juliette Lewis, an overly angry Luke Evans and a bizarre caricature of Missi Pyle. Sue Ann’s treatment at school, with one disturbing event in particular, forms the basis of her obsession and desire for revenge.
Taylor interestingly paints Ma as both villain and victim and, after glimpsing Ma’s past, it becomes harder to ignore her trauma as reason for her actions. Spencer’s phenomenal ability to appear both vulnerable and intensely sinister is what holds this film together.
Spencer keeps Ma’s insanity subtle, brewing just below the surface, at least until the third act when all hell breaks loose. Taylor spends two thirds of the film building tension, only to jump from intense thriller to insane chaos in the final act.
Ma lets loose and goes full ‘hand that rocked the cradle’ crazy. In a scene that involves dog collars, prosthetic genitals and an infusion of dog’s blood, things get very dark very fast. Spencer just about holds the whole thing together with her A-list acting, but only just. It’s clear she has a wonderful time playing the unhinged Ma, whose wicked comedy and sinister glares make her a killer villain (pun intended).
It seems a shame that a film which was so successfully building up to something dramatic would so quickly turn ludicrous. It renders the whole thing a little average. And though the last act is nothing short of ridiculous, there is still no doubt that this movie is a hugely enjoyable horror thrill ride, complete with a show-stopping performance from Spencer and an unexpected cameo from Allison Janney.
Ma is out in cinemas now, distributed by Universal.