Ma
Watch Octavia Spencer shift from the family-friendly onscreen personality we once knew, to the killer we'll hate to hate. (Illustration by Eunhye Cho, Laguna College of Art and Design)

Remember “The Help,” the movie about maids in the Jim Crow-era South? Remember the shorter maid who was hilarious? Ever want to see her play a serial killer? The third question never followed the first two until the horror movie “Ma,” starring Octavia Spencer, premiered on May 31, 2019. Advertisements promised cold-blooded torture, with the grinning face of the social worker from “Instant Family” holding the implements. The result? Debatable.

The premise is simple enough. A new girl in town hangs out with some teens who want to buy liquor. They meet Sue Anne, a veterinary worker, who buys them some alcohol and slowly lures them into her house. The domicile becomes the hot party spot in town, but Sue Anne, or Ma, begins to unravel.

The audience and teen-leads are able to slowly piece together that Sue Anne, a shy kid while in high school, was the victim of a cruel prank at the hands of some of the current kids’ parents. In the movie, she ultimately murders both of the prank’s ringleaders and plans to kill the main teens, but her daughter, Genie, betrays her. The teens escape, and the house burns with Sue Anne beside the corpse of her crush and tormentor, Ben Hawkins.

Despite the intended premise, “Ma” ends up feeling more like a character study than a horror movie. The spills and chills are more disturbing than gory, and they’re concentrated toward the end. Most of the movie slowly builds dread through Sue Anne’s subterfuge and rapidly deteriorating presence.

The real focus, though, is Sue Anne’s humiliation, and how it anchors her in the past. Everything revolves around this fact. Two of the teens are directly connected to three of her former classmates. She obsesses over a high school crush. She makes a yearbook with herself and the teens. Sue Anne confines Genie to their home, claiming to protect her from bullies like Sue Anne’s when in reality, her actions only isolate Genie as Sue Anne isolated herself.

Even the party music, ‘70s and ‘80s pop, played songs like, “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Funkytown”; this would never appear in a 2019 teen’s rager playlist, but they would certainly be on the speakers throughout Sue Anne’s childhood. The cumulative effect creates a well-crafted, almost Shakespearean, tale about a woman who cannot move forward.

Sue Anne’s humanity sets “Ma” on a higher level. She is most definitely evil: her actions are calculated and cold-blooded. She stalks and preys upon teenagers, and she abuses her child. Hawkins’ death scene is also twistedly absurd, involving a love bed and a dog, while former classmate Mercedes gets a quick truck to the body, an epithet of expletives and “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire, all done brusquely.

And yet, serial killers evoking this level of sympathy are rare. Sue Anne’s humiliation follows her. She lives a mostly reclusive life in the same small town, and rejection from the teens makes her cry. She wants to be this cool party hostess beloved by the youth, to the point of obsession. But the underlying reasons behind her actions mean that if she achieves her dream, horrible things will happen.

Spencer’s acting is top-notch. She can pull off an emotional kaleidoscope of fun, misery, coldness and sadistic glee in a role that draws on classic horror icons like Mrs. Vorhees, Carrie, and Freddie Krueger, while bringing them into an all-too-human light. “Ma” feels bizarre next to Spencer’s work in “Hidden Figures” and other family-oriented films.

The production of the movie aids Spencer in establishing her character. The camera work has some good, woozy motion that slightly disorients the viewer, while keeping the action well in the frame. The film abounds with subtle perspective shots, often keeping the five-foot-two-inch Spencer at a low angle until she sheds her congenial demeanor. This makes the viewer underestimate Sue Anne until convenient for her.

Unfortunately, this intense character portrayal pushes the weakness of the other characters into the light. Most are slightly above-average horror movie archetypes like, “the handsome jerk” or “the sensitive guy.” Genie’s pained confinement and Haley’s subversion of the popular girl add some dynamics, but nearly every drop of character diverts to Sue Anne. The emphasis makes “Ma” feel rather lopsided. The characters are recognizably human and well-written, but they’re a bit one-note compared to the rhapsody of Sue Anne.

The underwhelming supporting cast weakened the climax, which is a shame. “Ma” keeps the viewer in an excellent state of suspense, and the dread builds with no gore or frights until well into the movie. When Hawkins’ execution scene arrives, the death has tremendous and sadistic force, but the scenes after lack punch.

At this point, Sue Anne has achieved revenge; all that is left is fantasy, and fantasy rarely meshes well with revenge. She sets the five teens up as perversions of archetypal yearbook “Most ____s.” The only category with an ironic point is the talkative Haley’s mouth having been sewn shut during the movie.

Her little comments attempt contrapasso, or ironic punishment, but they don’t hold up. They feel like the writers decided on the yearbook photos, which provided unsettling images for the advertisements, and flailed limply for something else.

In the finale, Sue Anne gets a final confrontation with Ericka, the friend who betrayed her and mother of one of the teens. The scene should have some emotional weight, but none is there. The chaos around them distracts from Ericka’s pleas for forgiveness.

They wasted a perfectly good opportunity earlier when Ericka confronts Sue Anne in a liquor store. They should have put some attempt at apology in that scene, but nothing. It all rests on the scene where the house is ablaze and falling apart.

Fortunately, the film ends on a high note. Stabbed and defeated, Sue Anne gazes from her window at her would-be victims, walks up the stairs, and lays in the bed alongside her bully’s corpse. The house burns to cinders as the credits roll.

This scene depicts the film best. Sue Anne has a deliberate death, and her position reinforces how, in a world that ignored and tortured her, she simply wanted to be loved.

To answer the original question: yes, you want to see Spencer as a serial killer. “Ma” is an unbalanced, but great, film. Even though the supporting cast is well above-average for a horror movie, they pale in comparison to Spencer, and the stretch between Hawkins’ death and the final shots are weak. However, Spencer’s stupendous acting, and some well-crafted elements, redeem many of the film’s shortcomings. “Ma” is an uneven mess, but the film is a beautiful, uneven mess.

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