As a movie villain, the titular mischief-maker of the psychological horror film “Ma” – an unhinged middle-aged enabler whose house becomes Party Central for a gaggle of teens looking for a place to drink illegally – has a hodgepodge of cinematic DNA. Part Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” part Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” she’s also the spiritual heir of Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction,” Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” both Carrie White and Margaret White in “Carrie,” and Baby Jane Hudson in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Yes, there is someone in a wheelchair.
As rendered by Octavia Spencer (you read that right), the character of Sue Ann – or Ma, as her underage friends call her after she buys them booze and insists they drink it in her spooky basement – is also entirely herself: original, crazy, yet grounded in the kind of straight-faced acting that Spencer is known for. That doesn’t mean the actress can’t find ways to have fun with the part. Sue Ann, who gradually reveals a dark backstory that informs her increasingly deranged behavior, deserves to enter the pantheon of campy creeps that includes the above performances.
The movie “Ma,” on the other hand, is not destined for such distinction.
Director Tate Taylor, the filmmaker who once guided Spencer to a supporting-actress Oscar in “The Help,” has created a B-movie fright fest that is well aware of – and even seems to revel in – its limitations. Written by Scotty Landes, a writer and producer of TV comedies, “Ma” is, at heart, an overly familiar story of terrorized teens, albeit one that manages to find a few new twists to that tired trope.
The story centers on Maggie (Diana Silvers), a sweet 16-year-old who has just moved, with her newly divorced mother (Juliette Lewis), back to Mom’s Ohio hometown from California. Maggie quickly falls in with the clique of cool kids, who are befriended by Sue Ann after they go looking for an adult to buy alcohol for their party van.
At first, Sue Ann seems like kind of a sensible person: Ma doesn’t want them drinking and driving; she encourages good manners, discourages swearing and warns Maggie to take it slow with her new boyfriend (Corey Fogelmanis). Boys only want one thing, Ma warns her.
But Sue Ann’s interest in her young charges turns out to be anything but motherly, as one of Maggie’s new friends (Dante Brown) seems to recognize, early on, when he observes, in a monster of understatement: “We don’t know this chick.” That line was greeted with a big laugh at a preview screening, one of many guffaws that periodically swept the mixed crowd of horror fans and critics, a few of whom even seemed ready to meet the film where it was, and not where their refined sensibilities wished it to be.
Like much of what Ma dispenses – other than, you know, the cocktails (and, later, much worse) – this is wise advice.
“Ma” is not great storytelling, let alone great art. As it builds to its absurd, sometimes shockingly violent climax, Landes stuffs a bit too much plot – involving torture, veterinary tranquilizers and vehicular mayhem – into a tale that just can’t sustain it. And the mix of flashbacks and revelations is sometimes handled clumsily. But “Ma” can, in the right frame of mind, be great fun.
Mostly that’s thanks to Spencer. She brings a memorable madness to “Ma.” If you forgot to send your mom a Mother’s Day card this year, Sue Ann might make you glad to have escaped with your life.