Blumhouse is at it again. Utilizing their uncanny sense of the zeitgeist and racially progressive stories in order to add some much needed spice with their scares, the little production company that could is back with possibly their most deranged psycho-thriller yet; and best of all is they’ve brought Octavia Spencer with them.
Spencer has been a character actress of some note for quite a while now, popping up in everything from the Oscar winning The Shape Of Water and Hidden Figures to getting repeatedly stabbed in the back in Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, but here she’s finally cut loose to go nuts. Like, Kathy Bates in Misery nuts, but it’s just a shame the film doesn’t choose to go as far out with her.
Maggie and her mother have moved back to the latter’s old home town after a messy divorce and the former has to endure starting at a new school but luckily she makes friends quick with a popular group of kids and before you know it they are hanging out in front of liquor stores asking passers by to buy them booze. Eventually along comes Sue Ann, a lonely sad sack who works at the local veterinarian, who regularly agrees to get them the alcoholic provisions they need. However this eventually comes with a stipulation that for the benefit of safety, they should use her basement as a party room. Of course what with kids being kids (who really enjoy getting wasted, it’s literally all they seem to do), they agree and soon hanging out in Sue Ann’s (a.k.a Ma’s) basement becomes the regular cool thing to do in this boring-ass town.
This being Blumhouse, however, things obviously aren’t what they seem and Ma is a nutty fruit bar of pent up secrets, emotions and past trauma who’s benevolent act predictably tips over (almost instantly) into creepy obsession.
Let’s us start with the positive, and by positive I overwhelmingly mean Octavia Spencer. Grasping this role with both hands she creates a sad, scary, funny, fully three dimensional character that fits her like a glove, her huge, pendulous mood swings utterly believable thanks to how grounded he makes Ma and choosing to not chew the scenery merely for the sake of it. In fact good, juicy villain roles for women in an American thriller – if fact not just women but African American women – have been a bit thin on the ground as of late considering that back in the 90’s you couldn’t move for antagonistic female characters and Ma joins the ranks of Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Misery and Basic Instinct effortlessly.
With that all in mind it’s just a damn shame the film doesn’t live up to it’s centrally complex performance as despite some last act mutilation, doesn’t push the envelope as much as I’d hoped it would. Watching Ma as a seasoned horror fan (although it really mostly is a thriller) I found there was a been there, done that aspect to the nastier parts of the film that just didn’t seem nasty enough. Everytime you think the film is going to go full crazy it frustratingly and continuously pumps the brakes, stopping short of of legitimately brain searing twistedness (although Ma’s photoshoot in the final reel comes close).
The script sometimes loses focus (and do kids really still use Facebook that much?) but has oodles of dark humor which the uniformly good cast commendably take advantage of but in the end it all really is Spencer’s show.
It’s just a shame it doesn’t rise to meet her talents.