Psssht. Ma (Octavia Spencer) won't just hook you high schoolers up with all the Fireball you can guzzle. I mean, she was young once, and she gets it: there's not a whole hell of a lot more to do in this one-Starbucks-town than get plastered. Still, if you're going to suck down liquor by the gallon and puff-puff-pass, Sue Ann's at least going to do what she can to make sure you get home safe. Sue Ann – you can call her "Ma" – offers up her basement for parties, far from the watchful eyes of overprotective parents. She just has a couple of rules. Someone's gotta stay sober to do the whole Designated Dave thing. And do what you gotta do in the basement, but upstairs is her domain, so...yeah, off limits. But it's cool. All these kids are happy to abide by the Two Commandments. Sue Ann definitely doesn't have some kind of demented ulterior motive. Everyone's safe and snug and secure and has a really good time and ohmotherfuckernevermind:
Ma could've settled for a compellingly simple premise. Someone who was always on the outside looking in back in high school suddenly finds herself one of the cool kids, thirty years too late. And when Sue Ann gets that long overdue taste of the good life – an illusion that can never really last – she'll go to dementedly dark lengths to keep the party goin'. But like Sue Ann herself, Ma just doesn't know when to quit.
There's a whole Krueger-esque sins of the father thing with Sue Ann still being tortured by traumas inflicted upon her by her newfound pals' parents back in her high school days. (And, like Freddy, she has a tendency to incorporate these kids' most defining characteristics into their torture.) There's an underdeveloped Munchausen by Proxy subplot. An awful lot of time is spent showing how shitty a veterinary assistant Sue Ann is. We're bombarded with a whole bunch of flashbacks, gradually cluing us in to what shattered Sue Ann a few decades back. Plus we're supposed to sympathize with these kids, so we need to spend some time getting to know them as well. Or, well, just new girl Maggie (Diana Silvers), and not so much the wrong crowd she immediately falls in with.
What should've been a lean, efficient, good-times-gone-bad revenge thriller is instead overstuffed and awkwardly paced. You already know from the 30 second TV spots that Ma snaps, but you have to wait until the final half hour for anything along those lines to actually happen. Breaking away from the systematic hunting of a traditional slasher, all of the high school-aged prey is grabbed at once. There's no long-simmering dread or prolonged torment. They're each subjected to a few seconds' worth of not particularly visceral torture, all contained in the space of a single sequence. Yeah, some of it's fucked up. And sure, a couple of Sue Ann's tormentors meet deservedly grisly ends prior to that. But there's this excruciating sense of "wait, that's it?!"
Clearly there was something in the screenplay to attract this type of cast. Ma is littered with familiar faces in smaller roles, among them Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, and Dominic Burgess with an accent that...whew, that's a choice, alright. Octavia Spencer is, as ever, outstanding, exuding an immediately magnetic charm that masks something unspeakably dark. The way in which she's able to switch between the two like flipping a light switch – from doing The Robot to obsessive cyberstalking – never ceases to impress. Ma is sincerely invested in Sue Ann as a character, taking care to explore her humanity and reveal something resembling layers, even with the foreknowledge that she's going to careen deliriously over the top in the third act. But despite Spencer giving it her damndest, the execution isn't as successful as I would've liked to have seen.
Along those same lines, the actors playing Maggie's newfound clique elevate the material as best they can, and the dynamic between them feels genuine and unforced. But with the exception of her shiny new boyfriend (Corey Fogelmanis), they kinda just feel like Maggie's friends and Ma's victims-in-waiting rather than truly distinct characters in their own right. Someone who mainlines as much slasher cinema as I do obviously isn't going to turn his nose up at archetypes, but...if I'm not really given too much of a chance to get to know them, if most of them are forgettable at best and actively loathsome at worst, and if the torment they're subjected to is this disappointingly brief, then what's the point? They're just warm bodies filling a quota. At least the kids are quite a bit smarter than usual, cluing in fairly early on to what a wackjob Sue Ann is.
But dammit, at the same time, you have national treasure Octavia Spencer hiii-yaa!-ing a pyramid of beer cans to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting". How disappointed can I really be with you, Ma? No one's going to mistake this as a masterfully crafted, unnervingly taut thriller. It's not nearly as infectiously campy or slathered in blood as the marketing might suggest. I can't really envision a scenario in which I'd feel inspired to give this disc another spin. (If you ask me nicely, I guess...) But you're promised Octavia Spencer subjecting a gaggle of high schoolers to a world of hurt, and Ma just barely delivers enough on that front to be worth watching once if you too are into that sort of thing. Rent It / Stream It.
It's a bit of a drag to see that Ma is going to be making the rounds on all the usual digital services in Ultra HD, while there isn't a physical 4K release on the books. Between the cinematography's fascination with specular highlights and its characters' tendency to goof around with flashlights, Ma would undoubtedly shine (pun kind of intended?) in HDR. But as far as what Blumhouse and Universal have delivered here...? Lookin 'good, Ma:
Seriously, take a look at the fine pattern of Sue Ann's woven cardigan above, as well as how clear and distinct the animal designs on her scrubs are. And that screenshot is hardly an outlier. Facial textures are consistently striking throughout the film. While the image isn't astonishingly crisp and detailed, nor is there all that much in the way of depth or dimensionality, Ma still effortlessly hits the marks I'd hoped to see. Its use of color is effective as well. Being set in a dull, listless, one-horse town, it follows that the palette is somewhat understated, roaring to life when all those parties rage in Sue Ann's basement and in the handful of scenes in the casino. Ma is nicely authored to boot, afforded a sufficiently healthy bitrate on this BD-50 disc to stave off any hiccups in the AVC encode. So, yeah: no gripes or complaints this time around.
Ma doesn't do the whole immersive audio thing natively, but this 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack upmixes extremely well if you have a Neural:X-capable AVR. Atmospherics in particular impress: background chatter and slammed locker doors in the halls of the high school, the deafening bustle in the casino, the whoop of unseen birds in the dead of night, and countless barking dogs in the vet's kennel, to rattle off a few. Quite a bit of attention has been paid towards directionality, whether it's the clicking of an unresponsive wheelchair, a wounded and whimpering pup, or Sue Ann's truck pulling into her driveway. The occasionally unconventional instrumentation in the score sounds marvelous as it spreads across these many channels, and I never knew how desperately I needed to hear "Safety Dance" engulf my home theater from every conceivable direction. As you'd probably expect from this sort of thriller, bass response can be punishing, especially how deeply it resounds in Sue Ann's flashbacks. The incendiary climax is another aural highlight, seizing hold of the LFE and surrounds alike. Very well done.
Also included are lossy DTS 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish, along with a Descriptive Video Service track. Subtitles are served up in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
Ma comes packaged in a lightly embossed slipcover, with a DVD and a high-def digital copy code riding shotgun.
The Final Word
Ma doesn't work as a psychological study of a long mistreated, middle-aged woman with a murderous compulsion to belong, nor is it the campy slasher I waltzed in expecting to see. An expectedly spectacular performance by Octavia Spencer goes some way towards smoothening out the movie's many rough edges, but Ma isn't good enough – or transcendentally awful enough – to recommend as more than a rental or VOD.