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Film Reviews Lacking a refined vision, Ma doesn’t add anything to the horror genre

Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann in Ma.

Universal Studios

  • Ma
  • Directed by Tate Taylor
  • Written by Scotty Landes
  • Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis
  • Classification: R; 99 mins

rating

In the wake of the high and mighty airs surrounding pop culture’s recent discussions of “elevated horror," it seems these days – to borrow generously (or, rather recklessly) from another well-known phrase – that everybody wants to be a horror director, but don’t nobody wanna be a horror director. One line of thought often missing from these roundabout conversations of the genre as it currently stands is, not what “type” of horror movies directors seek to make but, rather, should one even be directing horror in the first place?

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The best horror filmmaking exists as a perfectly endless rehashing, recombining and revisioning of elements that wink back at the genre’s own past while bringing new and prescient elements to the fore. It’s a delightfully satisfying feedback loop that revels in its own vocabulary and the ability of its audiences to be highly fluent in its languages. The worst of it, or at least, the least satisfying of the genre’s output, exists as stale reiterations lacking in spirit and identity.

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Director Tate Taylor’s Ma falls largely within the category of horror movie that exists as a stale reiteration of past films, lacking in spirit and identity.

Universal Studios

Director Tate Taylor’s newest effort, Ma, falls largely within this latter category, albeit with a few welcome sidesteps into the pure fun of the genre. The idea of an emotionally unhinged black woman (Octavia Spencer, cast here in the titular role) who becomes violently obsessed with a group of mostly white teens does lend to mind a vision of “social horror” as forwarded by contemporary genre hero Jordan Peele. But, in terms of the film’s execution, this is simply not the case. Instead, Taylor’s conveniently timed first venture into horror territory is a feat of marketing: a film that cashes in on the discussions and social capital surrounding black-led genre films such as Peele’s, the draw (and cultural intonations) of the Blumhouse Productions name, and the ability to cut wildly entertaining trailers that deliver much more than the entire film in and of itself.

What Taylor’s fifth feature does succeed at is making the stock of derangement synonymous with being the complete ire of a foul-mouthed vet (the wonderfully cast, if criminally underused, Allison Janney), an affection for loudly bejewelled denim caps, and delightfully disturbed interspecies blood transfusions. Seeing two Oscar winners (alongside cult and character favourites Missi Pyle and Juliette Lewis) clearly having fun in their roles is one of Ma’s most satisfying elements, and the film is indeed at its best when it goes full camp. Unfortunately, more often than not, Ma settles into its lack of a refined generic vision and stalls out just before it’s able to hit most of its horror talking points squarely on the head.

Taylor’s conveniently-timed first venture into horror territory is a feat of marketing: a film that cashes in on the discussions and social capital surrounding black-led genre films.

Universal Studios

It should come as no surprise to those who have seen the director’s Academy Award nominated, white-saviour gospel The Help that one of his newest film’s most obvious faults is that there are distinct elements of Ma’s (and Ma’s) story that deserve a more incisive view in terms of their racial politics. This is not, as I’m often accused of by the white men and women who occupy my inbox, “to make everything about race,” but rather to say, frankly, if you’re going to go there, go there. Give your characters depth and write their stories smartly. Don’t rely only on a few throwaway scenes involving the film’s only other black character to carry vague gestures toward racial politics (never mind, envision this one character’s fate as a fumbled and oddly stilted rendition of one of FX show Atlanta’s most satisfyingly puzzling characters, Tobias Walner). Because horror is a smart genre that deserves more than directors looking to “switch it up.”

Ma opens in theatres on May 31, 2019.

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