There’s a reason why horror films have such low budgets; such a volatile genre can deliver massive cultural and commercial hits or some of the worst films ever released. Smart directors are able to spin the low money into some truly ingenious and terrifying concepts, but for every Get Out (2017) we must sit through the duds that this genre is famous for spewing out.
Ma (2019) is a horror film that follows Maggie (Diana Silvers) as she moves into a new town and school with her single mother (Juliette Lewis). In an attempt to fit in, she hangs around a group of kids prone to drinking and smoking. When tasked with asking an adult to buy them alcohol, Maggie bumps into a veterinarian nurse Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) who slowly starts getting integrated to inappropriate degrees into the teenage group’s gatherings.
With many horror films (due again to their low budget) the cast is usually not known for being incredibly talented. This is the case for the majority of the teenage actors in Ma, but the supporting adults promised much more with Spencer and Lewis being flanked by the likes of Luke Evans and a cameo-like Allison Janney. Director Tate Taylor also gave this film promise with solid films like The Help (2011), Get on Up (2014), and The Girl on the Train (2016) in his filmography. Who would have thought that such a boring splurge would end up on screen. Taylor is incapable of wrangling a believable performance from any of his actors; Spencer’s core lead performance ended up being a caricature and led to more laughs from the audience than any dread. Given that the majority of the film is the interaction of Spencer with the uncharismatic teenagers, this led to the characters falling completely flat.
The main reason many viewers go to horror films is to feel thrills and adrenaline pumping. The methods to achieve this can range from slow-building dread, which is much harder to conceive, or simple jump-scares. Ma’s main problem was that it wasn’t scary, because it thought it was building anxiety, and thus didn’t rely on cheap scares. Taylor was incapable of following even the simplest of horror tropes, begging one to think if he knew he was making a scary movie at all. Many say that horror in film is 60% because of sound, but Taylor seemed to have missed the memo, completely overlooking this core aspect. Jump-scares were not accentuated with high-pitched music, and a restraint in silence or creeping sounds is nonexistent. Even the great showdown at the end is done in broad daylight. This particular culmination was so anti-climactic, after a supposed build-up, that it completely shatters viewers patience.
Many horror films choose to explore or reflect some aspect of society or human nature. The horror genre is the modern form of a fable, passing on messages and lessons to general masses. Ma couldn’t decide if it wanted to say anything; there seemed to be slivers about bullying, but they were handled messily, making any empathy for bully victims evaporate. There could have been a combination between bullying and race, which would have given the film and its characters much more dimension and relevance, but Taylor seemed either ignorant or afraid to touch on it. The entire concept for the film felt like it was half-written, with a script that reads like a shy mumble and a blur.
Ma is a horror film that can’t even scare us properly, there were too many contradictions and stumbles to making this story engaging. The botched directing by Taylor ended up confusing and abandoning a cast that is also incapable of spinning any vigor into this film.