Horror tale's plot is too contrived

Ma stars Octavia Spencer and Luke Evans (both above).
Ma stars Octavia Spencer and Luke Evans (both above).PHOTO: UIP

The unusual casting choice - with Octavia Spencer as the protagonist and villain - does little to lift this supposedly creepy tale


MA (NC16)

100 minutes/Opens today/ 2 stars

The story: Teen Maggie (Diana Silvers) and mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) move to Erica's small home town in Ohio. A group of popular kids in Maggie's new school take a shine to her and invite her to a party. They beg Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) to buy alcohol for them. The reclusive woman agrees, but adds a condition. For their own safety, they should drink in the basement of her home. But "Ma", as she tells them to call her, warns them to never go upstairs.

This movie proves that interesting casting choices putting a new spin on old ideas do not guarantee that a horror movie will be either scary or even entertaining.

The whole project rests mainly on the intriguing idea of casting Spencer - everyone's favourite sassy friend, wisecracking colleague or warm-hearted domestic helper in films such as The Shape Of Water (2017) and The Help (2011) - as both the protagonist and villain.

Spencer snaps into creepy mode quickly, mainly by playing it straight.

So much of what is felt as "horror" lies in how ordinary behaviour is perceived by the audience, rather than how much sinister oomph an actor or director puts into a scene.

In the first two-thirds, the story is built around the mystery of Sue Ann and her motive for playing bartender and nursemaid to furniture-wrecking, vomiting kids on weekend benders.

The story drops hints about her that only heighten the suspense - there are flashbacks to her own teen years and scenes showing her prowling around her home and workplace, a veterinary clinic - raising hopes that they will all make sense in the end.

They do, but not without forcing the viewer through a set of torturous plot contrivances.

Director Tate Taylor (the Oscar-nominated drama The Help; mystery thriller The Girl On The Train, 2016) is dealing with a screenplay that tries to balance the threat to the kids posed by Ma with sympathy for her.

And it works, mainly because the roots of pain and wickedness are always more interesting than the forces that shape the good person in the story.

The good person is Maggie, the archetypal New Girl, a kid from a single-parent family who is bullied in school, then, in a convenient character flip-flop, is adopted by the party kids. She also has town history explained to her so that the audience can follow along.

She might as well have the words Last Survivor pasted on her forehead.

A clear sign that the story is failing is when the viewer knows this and hopes that the film will redeem itself in the climax by finishing her off in the most gruesome way possible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2019, with the headline 'Horror tale's plot is too contrived'. Print Edition | Subscribe