Octavia Spencer had already been a presence in Hollywood for 15 years when she lined up with director Tate Taylor for 2011's Academy Award-winning The Help, a film that would take Spencer from "steadily working actress" to "Academy Award-winning actress."
The simple truth is that Octavia Spencer has become a household name over the last few years, a face so familiar that it's really kind of hard to believe that she's truly only been a household name for less than ten years.
Now then, I have no idea of Spencer took less than her going rate to work alongside Taylor once again for this $5 million Blumhouse Production horror flick that is unlike anything we've ever seen from the actress or, for that matter, from Taylor himself. However, whatever the reason, Spencer's casting is the master stroke in a film that could have easily been a one-note clunker but instead comes deliciously to life in the hands of an actress who seems incapable of giving a bad performance.
Taylor is co-writer and director for the film, taking your standard indie horror flick and amplifying it without ever losing those indie quirks ahd charms. It's not a perfect film, but it's those imperfections that make the film even more entertaining and Spencer, you gotta' love her, gives it her all as Sue Ann, a veterinary assistant with some unresolved issues from the past and a whole lot of pent-up rage that she's not always great at dealing with. She was a victim of the cool kids in high school - 30 years later, she hasn't forgiven or forgotten. So, when a group of obviously cool kids stop her outside a liquor store to ask her to buy their liquor? She simply can't resist with a gleam in her eyes that makes you wonder if this is about revenge or a desire to fit in.
Spencer finds every little nuance in the character of Sue Ann, even tapping into the character's obvious humor potential and unabashedly playing the hell out of all of it.
Ma is set squarely in contemporary society, a society where it's not exactly difficult for Sue Ann to find out everything she wants to know about these young people and she quickly sets out to use that knowledge to her advantage. Initially, it seems like a tremendous opportunity for everyone involved - she offers up her basement as a place for them to safely party. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there's a whole lot more going on here and even though the film becomes ludicrous to the point of silly there's something about Spencer's performance that keeps it all grounded.
Ma is the kind of film that requires a tremendous suspension of belief in order to make it all work. While dumb teenagers doing dumb things aren't exactly uncommon in indie horror, Ma stresses the unbelievability to unbelievable lengths and if you're not willing to go along with it all then you may find yourself removed from the film rather quickly. Allison Janney basically gets second billing in the film, though she's not much more than a bit player. It doesn't really matter much, because this is truly Spencer's film from beginning to end.
Ma is really just a ridiculous film, but it's such a ridiculous film that it's a lot more entertaining than you might think it would be. It's never turned outright into a dark comedy, while even the film's horror feels awfully timid at times even as it becomes more graphic and Spencer becomes completely unhinged. This isn't an Academy Award performance we're watching here - it's simply the performance of a truly gifted actress having an absolute field day with the kind of role I'm guessing she doesn't get offered very often.
This review is being written shortly after opening weekend box-office numbers are in - while Ma is far away from winning the box-office crown, the film has already quadrupled its low by Hollywood standards production budget. In addition to Spencer's top notch work here, Janney's brief performance is a true delight as Sue Ann's boss whose tendencies are a little on the severe side. Juliette Lewis also turns in quality work, as well.
Octavia Spencer's Ma is one of the most unique, inspired horror movie villains to come across the big screen in quite some time. While Ma doesn't always live up to Spencer's maniacal glee, even when it doesn't the film remains an entertaining and engaging effort that may very well linger in your psyche' for quite some time.
Actual scares are somewhat limited in Ma, but what the film lacks in chills and thrills it makes up for with inventiveness, sadistic behaviors, and a devilish spirit that is quite a bit of fun to watch.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic