Jordan Peele was known as a comedian before he directed “Get Out” and “Us.” These films were sold as horror movies, but they at least seemed to be about race. And they were produced by established scary movie guy Jason Blum, who had already done “The Purge” movies, the “Insidious” movies and the “Paranormal Activity” movies. He’s the current king of horror.
The new film “Ma” is Blum’s best attempt to say something about the recent experience of African Americans. Tate Taylor, who had already made “The Girl on the Train” and “The Help,” directed. And feature film neophyte Scotty Landes wrote the screenplay.
One of the tricks current in the horror movie business is the introduction of known stars into casts made up mostly of cute 20-somethings playing cute teens. Taylor’s old collaborator Octavia Spencer is the title character in “Ma.”
Juliet Lewis, Missy Pyles and Allison Janney all took parts. And even the younger cast isn’t entirely unknown. The movie’s point of view character, new girl in school Maggie, is played by ugly/pretty Diana Silvers has been on local screens in “Glass” and “Booksmart” in the last few months.
The story is told in a fairly current way, too. With brief flashbacks to Ma’s high school experiences intercut with the main story’s action. Sue Ann — who will be known as “Ma” in the present day action — was a classmate of the other adults in the movie, and particularly of the parents of one set of teenagers. These five kids include Maggie, her new boyfriend and an African American fellow. After having bought liquor for these underagers, Sue Ann invites them to drink it in the basement of her isolated house. The idea is that she can keep them from driving drunk.
Soon other kids will make the basement a regular hang-out, and Ma will join them, drinking and dancing. Upstairs her teenaged daughter, who may or may not need a wheelchair, will sleep, probably sedated with drugs Sue Ann stole from her employer, a veterinarian (Janney).
Then Ma seems to have used the drugs on the party attendees. This happens after parents begin demanding that she quit hosting their kids. One of the parents was one of the organizers of a humiliating stunt Sue Ann had to live through when she was herself a teen.
The film doesn’t say she was targeted because she was black. But she is the only African American in the high school flashbacks. And while she has the gang of five drugged in her basement, she paints the black teen’s face white in setting up a group photo.
Metaphorically, “Ma” is suggesting that being black was like being an outsider in her generation’s social world — sometimes the butt of a joke, but otherwise excluded. Viewers who find this a satisfactory metaphor will think more of the movie than will those who think it out of proportion with the real effects of racism.
But the story goes on beyond its racial significance. When Sue Ann is slapped down in public by her old tormentor, she snaps. She begins by taking out adults against whom she holds grudges.
Then she goes after adults who may interrupt her chance at a sort of revenge to be acted out with the teens. The latter set of reprisals take place largely off-stage, unfortunately.
Taylor has given himself a sympathetic part as a police officer. Spencer is, as always, thoughtful in giving us a villain we feel for and then are revolted by, before we feel for her again in a sort of “A Rose for Emily” ending. One wonders if Lewis got her part because she would wear the casino cocktail waitress uniform. Anyway, she’s fine as Maggie’s divorced mother.
As a complete package, “Ma” is not really a horror movie. It has some elements of social commentary in it, but only those specific to African Americans are new.
One last Blum hallmark influences everything here. “Ma” was made on a modest budget. And so the movie’s success with audiences stands to make the founder of the Blum House production company a tidy sum.