Review: ‘Ma’ fails to be a horror film, let alone a good horror film

by Savannah Miller | 7/5/19 2:00am

Typically, disappointment has shaped my experience with horror movies. I watch them expecting to be scared and they wind up making me laugh more than some top-billed comedies. Incohesive plots, stupid characters and cliché twists are far too prevalent in most commercially successful horror films. I wish I could say this spring’s latest horror film, “Ma” was any different, but the most credit I can give the film is for its self-awareness — “Ma” knows just how campy it is. 

“Ma” toes the line between camp and gore to mixed results. The film tells the story of high schooler Maggie, played by Diana Silvers, who moves to her mother’s hometown halfway through the school year. Once there, Maggie quickly makes friends with a group of her peers with whom she solicits a stranger named Sue Ann to buy the group alcohol. This is where trouble begins for Maggie; Sue Ann becomes obsessed with the teenagers, realizing that they are the children of the bullies who traumatized her in high school. Sue Ann, who the teenagers nickname “Ma,” convinces the teenagers to drink in her basement so she can monitor them and make sure they “get home safe.” The teenagers eventually abandon her due to her erratic behavior and jolting mood swings, setting off a series of violent outbursts from Ma that culminate in a final showdown that is equal parts humorous and horrific.

To begin with some of the film’s strengths, the premise of “Ma” — a 50-something isolated woman welcoming teenagers to party in her house — lends itself to humor, from which director Tate Taylor does not shy away. The film juxtaposes the humor prevalent in the premise of the plot with the catastrophic effects humor can have to show that it isn’t always innocent; Ma’s obsession, the trigger for the whole disturbing plot, is the result of her trauma from the practical jokes her bullies played on her in her teens. This contrast allows the audience to find the film funny but also feel uncomfortable with that response, as the film constantly shows how a practical joke that some may view as humorous can actually wreak havoc on others.  

Actress Octavia Spencer, who stars as the titular character, gives a standout performance. The film’s screenplay at times can feel a little immature, even if you take into consideration that much of the dialogue is supposed to be said by teenagers. Despite that, Spencer manages to give a nuanced performance that bestows humanity to a killer. Her quiet emotionality presents Ma as a multifaceted person who, despite her inexcusable violence, is intensely vulnerable and can feel love for her child and the animals she took care of. For instance, in one scene some teenagers call Ma a “loser” and throw a bottle against her window. The next scene is a shot of Spencer crying quietly, yet with extreme emotionality, as she is reminded of the bullying she endured in her past.

“Ma” contains some relevant social elements that truly make this film feel well-suited for a young modern audience. For one, social media has a heavy presence throughout the film; Ma uses Facebook to find the names of the children after their first encounter and uses it as a tool to plan out and commit violence, opening discussion about the topic of online privacy and safety in this digital age. Another social element the film touches on is the trope of the singular black character in films and TV shows. Ma makes a comment to Darrell (portrayed by Dante Brown), the only black high schooler in the central group of teenagers, that “there’s only room for one of us,” reminding the audience of the lack of representation in mainstream media. 

All this being said, there are still many ways in which “Ma” lacked originality and complexity, leaving me unsatisfied. Maybe it’s too much to ask, but just once I would like to encounter a horror movie whose characters are actually, well, smart. The characters’ unrealistic grasp on reality and frankly silly way of dealing with Ma make it harder to focus on the film and take the horror seriously. Some of the decisions made by Maggie and her crew are plainly idiotic. For example, none of the characters exercise any sort of reasonable caution when dealing with strangers — namely, Ma — in the first place. I found myself wondering why none of them asked any questions about Ma. Why didn’t they think it was weird for a middle-aged woman to be so interested in their social lives? How did they feel so secure in their decision to enter a stranger’s home and be completely inebriated and thus at their most vulnerable? They’re high schoolers — when I and most everyone I know was at that age or even younger, I knew about “stranger danger.”

On top of the existing flaws in the premise of the film, one of the things I found the hardest to get over while watching “Ma” was the questions it left unanswered — questions that could have potentially provided the movie with higher stakes and thrills to better capture the audience. Lingering questions about Ma’s backstory, like what happened to her husband who is alluded to in the film and why Ma did nothing to get revenge until now if it was so important to her, left me wondering whether the writers had simply gotten tired while writing the script and decided not to finish what they had started. Moreover, many plotlines were introduced but not resolved. For instance, the fallout from the high school incident that affected Ma and informs her interest in vengeance is never really fully addressed and played out. There’s no closure about whether Ma’s actions made her feel that justice was served and how her antics impacted her tormentors, making the foundation that the plot builds upon far too rudimentary. Moreover, the film’s narrative trajectory completely skips the time between the prank that traumatized Ma and the present, missing an opportunity to build a deeper understanding of Ma’s experiences and gain a deeper emotional investment in any of the characters. 

Lastly, “Ma” contains narrative elements that are stereotypical, short-sighted and even outright problematic. One of these elements worth mentioning is the question of Ma’s mental health. Mental health concerns are still heavily stigmatized, and intentional or not, “Ma” leans into the idea of mental disorders leading to or even causing violence. Ma’s fixation on her former tormentors makes it evident to the audience that she has suffered extensive trauma, but that’s as far as the film goes. It labels Ma as someone with poor mental health but takes it no further, leaving her condition completely out of context and oversimplifying mental illness as a plot device and prescriptive label that guarantees and justifies her violent behavior. In reality, there are so many more elements that would need to be accounted for to make sense of Ma and her actions, which are far from common among those who’ve experienced trauma. Has Ma been to therapy? Despite her trauma, her violent escalation seems unrealistically rapid; has she been violent before? The film co-opts mental health as a cop-out, catch-all explanation for all of Ma’s behavior rather than building sufficient character development, perpetuating the inaccurate stigma surrounding mental illness. Considering how individuals suffering from mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of horrible crimes than actually commit them, it is detrimental to modern movements to be more accepting and understanding of mental health to create a character like Ma: a person who has experienced trauma and is combatting mental health issues who “goes crazy.” 

Whether it was intentional on the director’s part or not, after leaving the theater, it was Ma I felt bad for, not the kids that she had terrorized. For this reason, categorizing “Ma” as a horror movie may be incorrect. Sure, the film has its jump scares and is often unsettling, but overall, it seemed more like a psychological evaluation — albeit a flawed one — of a character who turns to violence when all other methods of surviving the cruel world fail.