“MA” Horror Movie Review

A delightfully disturbing and thought-provoking Carrie meets Misery horror movie. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer delivers an outstanding performance; however, the movie is unfortunately hampered by a weak screenplay with flat characters. In short, the reason to watch this movie is for the terrifying performance by Spencer, solid world-building, and commentary on high school bullying and teen sexual assault. Tonally, MA is a throwback to 70s and 80s slasher horror complete with the slow-burn windup, off-beat comedic schticks, and a descent into gnarly violence. Not all the kills cause you to wince as the screen holds your eyes hostage in the pleasurable unpleasure, one of the kills will leave you cheering–no seriously, it will. Built upon the premise of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children, the screenplay does not hold back when taking us to some very dark places that fester with anger, fear, and resentment. With so much going for it, it’s unfortunate that the movie suffers from on-the-nose dialogue, leaving little room for subtext. Furthermore, most of the characters lack significant dimension that could have propped up this movie. Some interesting relationship dynamics and backstory are touched on, but never followed through in a meaningful way. While Spencer is truly the glue holding this movie together, there are some highlights worth discussing.

A lonely middle-aged woman befriends some teenagers and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth. (IMDb)

While most of the characters lack any true dimension (except Ma), the ensemble cast is comprised of some highly relatable characters. At the forefront of the cast is our title character of Sue Ann (or Ma). If you are coming to this movie as a single individual over 30, then you will likely identify with her by empathizing with her backstory and understanding what it’s like to feel that life is a parade passing as you wave it by. Furthermore, Sue Ann suffered repeated bullying, rejection, and even teen sexual assault that left a lasting psychological trauma. Or maybe you are the former popular high school Erica who moved away from her jerkwater town to Los Angeles, lived a wealthy life, just to wind up a divorcee and back in your hometown as a cocktail waitress. Perhaps you are the new girl at school Maggie, who grew up in Los Angeles but now is back in dismal Ohio during your junior or senior year of high school because your dad left your mom (Erica) for another woman. You could be the Regina of your group of friends, the dude bro, or the all American boy with a touch of geek. Whatever your high school experience or how it affected your adulthood, there is likely a character with whom you can identify.

Although the film could have commented more on the PTSD associated with high school bullying in a more meaningful way, and derived even more horror from it, it does serve as an exploration of the real, lasting effects on the psyche. A brief character analysis of Sue Ann reveals someone who is trying to capture that which evaded her in high school: the parties, the romance, the care-free friends. Because of the abominable treatment of Sue Ann by many of her classmates in high school, she suffered a trauma that mitigated her ability to socialize properly and psychologically mature. Therefore, as she grew older, she was constantly reminded of that which she could not experience in high school. So, when she saw a moment to reconnect with her youthful self in being needed by the group of teens outside of the gas station to buy alcohol, she seized the opportunity. Of course, the fact that our all American boy Andy is the son of the guy she crushed on in high school, definitely helped her make the decision to help. Unfortunately, her high school crush was responsible for the sexual assault she endured. A sin for which both father and son would pay. It doesn’t take long for the teens to see the cracks in Sue Ann’s fragile veneer. While the teens enjoyed Sue Ann’s party house and the charismatic Ma, things were fine. When they rejected her, things took a grave turn for the worst. And just like that, she was reminded of the torment from their parents in high school and began to plot her revenge on both the teens and their parents. In this respect, she is a little like Freddy Krueger because in A Nightmare on Elm Street we have the concept of the sins of the parents will be visited upon the children.

If you went or are going into Ma with the desire to see a terrifying horror movie from start to finish, then I need to warn you that this is a slow burn horror movie. Not, that slow burn is without its intrigue and suspense, after all, this is where the world and relationship building happens. However, this movie does not reach its horror status until the third act. But once the horror hits, it hits hard–gnarly even. Even the kills/tortures that you saw in the trailer still pack a powerful punch. Most of kills are nightmarishly real. Very little visual effects here; you get the benefit of some highly authentic practical effects. Yes, even the lip sewing scene. Probably one of the most disturbing torture and kills involves animal blood; this moment is nice homage to both Misery and Carrie, but not a copy of either. There is a poetry to the tortures and kills. No one is targeted out of sheer happenstance, but targeted because of whom or what they represent. The sins by which Sue Ann judges the teens or parents are directly connect to or represented in the manner in which they meet their demise. More than the creativity in the actions of Sue Ann, the reasons why she feels the way she does are the most interesting. Even though we should be disgusted at the actions of Sue Ann, we cannot help but empathize with her because of her troubled history and past trauma. She wants what any of us want: to love, have our love returned, and be accepted.

Is it a great horror movie? No. But is is a solidly good one? Yes. If for no other reason, you watch Ma for the outstanding performance by Octavia Spencer! She is absolutely captivating and will leave you with many WTF moments. Interestingly, this is not Spencer’s first time in a horror movie; she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. I hope that we get to see her in more horror movies in the future because she did such a fantastic job with this one. If you’re looking for a fun, popcorn horror movie that–to its credit–does have some thought-provoking content, then you’ll enjoy Ma.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead