What could possibly go wrong when a lonely middle-aged veterinary nurse (Spencer) befriends a group of teenagers, buys them as much booze as they can drink, and allows them to party in her place on the outskirts of town? If your answer is ‘probably nothing, that sounds nice and I can’t imagine she has any other agenda’, you’re about as savvy as the aforementioned teens, and the latest film from Blumhouse productions, ‘Ma’, is here to give you a rude awakening. ‘Ma’, named for the nickname given to Spencer’s character SuAnn, starts well by establishing her as a believably grim character, showing the desperate banality of her day-to-day life and state of mind. Spencer is well-known enough now as a character actress that she can play with our expectations, and her style of bemused sassiness, so well-deployed in ‘The Help’ and ‘The Shape of Water’, works on a number of levels here. Initially disarming, later defensive, it ultimately gives way to something truly dark as she asserts herself and strikes back against those she feels have wronged her. SuAnn is a fantastic role for Spencer, gleefully running the gamut of emotions from charismatic robot-dancing party host, to sobbing in shock and devastation after being mocked, to a cool, resolved anger as she enacts her revenge. She’s a joy to watch. Scenes where SuAnn is slyly scrolling through the teens’ social media pages, bombarding them with texts and video messages, and even stalking them at school have an uncanny realism to them – like this could happen to anyone with a phone and an Instagram account! The film’s slow reveal of the trauma in her past and the horror of her present is genuinely effective in setting her up as more than the kind, if eccentric, figure she initially presents. Revenge narratives of the sort that ‘Ma’ gradually reveals itself to be are not new, nor are stories about high school bullying, but the film does a great job at linking these elements together to round out SuAnn, while Spencer embodies her perfectly.
It’s a shame that ‘Ma’ squanders this set-up somewhat by going full-on 90s-style slasher in its third act and moving away from the social and psychological anxieties that characterise the beginning of the film. While there are some genuinely uncomfortable moments in its carnage-laden conclusion, it too often veers over the top into easy gore and cheap shocks in a way that’s less effective than the psychic vampirism SuAnn exhibits early on. Her ability to leech goodwill, even pity from those around her is almost more upsetting than her drawing their actual blood. Combining a particular kind of 21st century social horror with classic slasher elements to mixed effect, ‘Ma’ doesn’t quite stick the landing, but may be worth seeing for Spencer’s hilariously fiendish performance.