Underrated Movies: Ma

Ma (film)
(from left) Darrell (Dante Brown, back to camera), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) and Haley (McKaley Miller) in "Ma," directed by Tate Taylor.

Ma was released back in 2019, if you can remember that such a time existed. Starring the wondrous Octavia Spencer as the titular character, it begins with a group of naïve high school students trying to get some alcohol, and ends with a house on fire, with Ma cradling the corpse of the man who once humiliated her when she was young. In-between there’s emotional pain, a psychotic break and of course, scenes that make your toes curl. Yet, it seems to have flown under the radar.

One reason for Ma slipping by without much fanfare could be what it was up against on opening weekend, facing box office giants Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the Elton John biopic Rocketman, both of which earned so much more than Ma on that all-important first weekend. Another could be because of critic’s mediocre reviews, with Benjamin Lee from The Guardian saying “It’s a shame as, by the time we reach the overwrought finale, investment has diminished and so has interest…” Another very real, and more likely, possibility is the fatigue audiences may be feeling with horror films right now.

Much like Star Wars and any superhero film, there almost seems to be a guarantee that at least one horror film will be released in the year, almost like an endless churn of content being pushed onto our screens. Ma‘s production company alone, Blumhouse, has released around 74 horror films in the past 11 years, not all of them driving the success they want them to have.

Horror films recently have become nuanced, using more than gross-out techniques and jump scares to keep an audience entertained and yet, there are still plans for a Paranormal Activity 7. With a refusal to seemingly change the formula, it could just be that audiences saw a cliched horror film trailer and thought to themselves ‘let’s not bother’.

Though perhaps there is a stigma around horror films right now, it’s a shame to let some pass you by. Octavia Spencer unexpectedly shines as Sue Ann aka Ma. Perhaps most well-known for her (dare I say, iconic) role in The Help – though with 138 acting credits to her name, it may well be you know her from elsewhere – there wasn’t many who anticipated seeing Spencer in a role like this.

She was exceptional though, the terrifying glue holding this film together. In the hands of anyone else, the character of Sue Ann could have easily become another two-dimensional horror villain with no real motive for her crimes. Spencer turned her into a pitiable character, displaying her incredible range in an otherwise formulaic plot.

This isn’t to say that none of the cast was good – Spencer stars alongside Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers – it’s just so surprising to find an otherwise dramatic actor show up and shine in a film like this.

Honestly, it’s also just refreshing to see variety in horror villains. It’s rare nowadays to see a woman be the lead villain in the story, let alone a scorned woman, let alone a scorned, black woman. This film, as much as it flew by without much notice, will hopefully push Hollywood to expand their gory horizons more, beyond the usual tropes.

I have noticed a rise in female-led horror films, especially from director Ari Aster, but it would be great to see more female villains in the story, with more interesting backstories. I get the scorned woman angle, it’s an easy angle to go for – in fact, most horror films could be boiled down to ‘this person was scorned by another and now must wreak havoc’ – but there are other angles.

Is there a lot more Ma could have done push boundaries? Yes, absolutely. I don’t think it deserves to be as underrated as it is, but I understand why. There was a lot more that could have been done and it just seemed to have been played safe, taking no further risks than hiring Octavia Spencer to be the big bad. That risk paid off though (please do more films like this Octavia Spencer if you’re reading), so it’s a shame the team behind this didn’t have the courage to do more.

Also Read: My Favourite Actor: Octavia Spencer

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Posted by
Laura Huckle

Freelance writer living in Essex. I'm an English and Creative Writing graduate and a lover of all things film. Current retirement plan is to live out my days as the Hobbit I was always meant to be.