“Last Christmas” mini movie review

Just the Christmas gift we needed this holiday season! Don’t be so quick to judge a holiday movie by its trailer. Much like we so often judge a book by its cover or a streaming movie based upon its thumbnail image, the same can be said for Christmas movies that look like they belong on Hallmark channel but somehow got a theatrical distribution. Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, written by Emma Thompson, is a heartwarming Christmas movie that is surprisingly deep and thought-provoking. If you’re a fan of his work, like I am (except for the Ghostbusters that doesn’t exist), you are familiar with his innate ability to take what looks like one movie, but then deliver something entirely different but completely brilliant in the execution that subverts expectations. Take Spy or last year’s A Simple Favor for examples. If you haven’t seen either, do yourself a favor and watch them! I absolutely adore how this movie takes what could simply be another paint-by-the-numbers romantic dramedy but provides audiences with a memorable movie built upon a simple plot and complex characters that audiences are sure to connect with. Kate played by Emilia Clarke (aka Mother of Dragons) is simply a treasure! And her costar Henry Golding, who plays Tom, is one part moral-compass and one part love interest. Follow Kate on a transformational journey that explores how constantly playing the victim and blaming everyone else for your problems can lead to destructive behavior. I appreciate the unconventional approach to Christmas movies this one takes. It doesn’t hold back on the cynicism that many people have about life or about the holiday season. The movie depicts true-to-life people that experience real struggles within the family unit and from the outside. In addition to the interpersonal relationship conflict, Kate’s family is also from the former Yugoslavia. This is an important subplot in the movie because the movie seeks to comment on the prejudice that some refugees-turned-citizens experience, especially in the midst of political turmoil. Like I said, this Christmas movie is surprisingly deep. The most powerful Christmas story ever (other than the Nativity) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and why is that? Because it’s a story of redemption. If Scrooge can be redeemed, we can all be redeemed. Kate is our Scrooge in this story. Perhaps that is why so many people love it, it parallels A Christmas Carol in beautiful ways, yet it doesn’t–on face value–appear to be an interpretation of it. Do yourself a favor and plan to make Last Christmas part of your holiday season.

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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Halloween Horror Nights XXIX Full Review

You know it’s Halloween season when Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights opens! And this year, it opened earlier than ever. What a banner year it is! Opening weekend with my friends was an absolute blast. Over all, this was a solid year for the event that turns 30 next year. Although there lacks an official theme for HHN29, it is very clearly 80’s nostalgia, complete with the laser lights and electronica sounds that were such a quintessential part of the decade. The lineup of houses is outstanding; from fantastic original concepts to familiar and even historic licensed IPs, HHN29 has something for everyone. New for this year is the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem projection/water nighttime spectacular on the lagoon that has showings a few times a night. Don’t miss it! In addition to houses, the crowd favorite Twisted Tater is back; I remember all too well, last year, the iconic starchy snack was absent on opening weekend. Not this year! Although my friends and I had Express Passes, the general wait times were all mostly under an hour. That number will likely increase the closer we get to Halloween; but for right now, waits are reasonable.

If I was to sum up the experience of this year compared to years gone by, I would have to say that this year’s HHN is less scary than previous seasons. This sentiment appears to be shared by others as well. The trend to catering to younger (and by younger, I mean under 17) and their families began last year with the introduction of Stranger Things. Now, I don’t only go to HHN to be scared–that’s not really the point–yes, is that an added benefit? Sure! But when you watch horror movies on a regular basis and attend this most prestigious Halloween event each year, you’re naturally going to become desensitized to the scares. Therefore, it may become less scary over time, but I would have liked to have experienced more terrifying moments in some of the houses. While I am being negatively critical of the level of terror, I want to emphasize that this IS a solid year, and one that I’ve experienced three times this season and plan to attend more.

This year’s houses: Universal Monsters, Graveyard Games, Nightingales Blood Pit, House of a Thousand Corpses, Depths of Fear, Us, Yeti Terror of the Yukon, Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

This year’s scare zones: Anarch-cade, Zombieland Double Tap, Rob Zombie Hellbilly Deluxe, Vikings Undead, Vanity Ball

Let’s start with my favorite house Universal Monsters! This was the house that I was most eager to experience even before the event began. And I am pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations. In a world of so many remakes and reboots of classic properties, this house delivered a fantastic experiential interpretation of the original monsters that started it all! You get The Hunchback, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Wolfman. Every aspect of this house was planned and executed with detailed precision. We didn’t get some reimagination of these characters in such a way that the house sought to “improve” upon the source material, it was a beautiful display of Universal’s legacy of horror.

My pick for best original concept house is Graveyard Games! This house transports you to a beautiful gothic haunted cemetery that delivers the scares for which you’re searching at HHN. The level of detail in this house is truly outstanding. And it’s not just the undead that are hunting you down. It would have been all too easy to just have another cemetery filled with zombies or other minions of the undead, but here you find any and everything that goes bump in the night and more. This is a house that I could do over and over again, and never get tired of it. I love how much like a real gothic cemetery it feels and that the scares are some of the best at the event this year.

Nightingales Blood Pit is the sequel to Nightingales from several seasons ago. Here you will find yourself in the trenches and catacombs of ancient Rome where sinister, blood thirsty  birdlike creatures have taken over the city. Not even Rome’s famous gladiators are a match for these horrifying abominations. If there was an award given out for best facade, then this house would win! I absolutely love the production design on the outside of the house that (1) you can take pictures of and (2) it instantly begins to immerse you into the nightmarish world into which you are about to descend. All that was missing is the aroma from the scene where “the great library of Alexandria was burned” on Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

House of a Thousand Corpses (HOATC) is an outstanding translation from screen to attraction! This is another house with a great facade, and the best one I’ve seen on this building in years. HOATC delivers precisely what you desire to see in this house! Not only does it have some great hillbilly horror scares, but the casting is fantastic, especially the actors playing Captain Spaulding. The moment I walked into the lobby of the store and saw Captain Spaulding standing behind the desk, you could have told me that it was Sig Haig and I would have believed you. You get it all, blood, guts, the music of Rob Zombie and more.

Depths of Fear is likely the weakest house out of the lineup this year. And it’s not because the concept is weak as much as it is the execution. I get it. It was going for Aliens set underwater. But for most of the house, I wouldn’t tell if I was in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. If this was supposed to be a horror comedy house, then I think I would have liked it more, but I don’t think the comedy was intentional. Although the costuming, puppet design, and other effects were creative, they lacked anything truly scary. Maybe this was another house, much like Stranger Things, that was supposed to appeal to a younger audience.

You may find yourself in the US house at HHN29. Based on the popular Jordan Peele movie released earlier this year US takes a stab at adapting Peele’s movie into an attraction. And if you’re a fan of the movie, then you will most likely enjoy this house because it is virtually every major plot point from the movie. The design and attention to detail is right out of the movie. As I found the movie to be just okay, I also find this house to be just okay. I can certainly understand why it was chosen over Toothfairy (which was actually a better and scarier house concept, btw) because of the box office success.

Bring your parka if you want to survive the night in Yeti Terror of the Yukon. Universal Creative delivers another excellent original concept house, loosely inspired by last year’s Revenge of the Swamp Yeti in Slaughter Sinema. So much fun! Not only is this house full of traditional scares, but it is incredibly fun. Completely re-doable. Although you are inside a sound stage, you will feel as though you are braving the icy temperatures of the Yukon. One of my favorite scares is when a giant Yeti arm attempts to grab you from above. Completely unexpected! And the costuming is fantastic too.

Who’re you gonna call? GhostbustersFollowing Universal Monsters, this was the next house I was looking forward to most. And although I was pretty much able to predict what I was going to see in the house, it doesn’t take away from how much fun it was! Many people that are now fans of or regulars at Universal Orlando are unfamiliar with the former Ghostbusters special effects and stunt show that was located where Jimmy Fallon is now. After the house was announced, I was hoping that I would see the same optical effects that the movie and live show used to bring the world of Ghostbusters to a haunted house attraction. And you know what? Universal did just that! From the use of projections and mirrors to a giant StayPuff Marshmallow Man head that smelled of toasted marshmallows, the commitment to staying true to the movie (and even the previous live show) was outstanding.

Returning for a second year in a row is Stranger Things. This time, immerse yourselves in “a solute to all [seasons] but mostly [season two].” My followers who, are friends of Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will appreciate that reference. By all measurable accounts, season three of the hit Netflix series is the stronger one between 2 and 3; however, this house is three-quarters season two. In fact, Star Court Mall, for all intents and purposes,  comprises one room–disappointing. I’d say that’s the word that sums up my experience of the Stranger Things house this year. It’s unfortunate that it was disappointing to me because Season Three lended itself to horror so much that I thought for sure it would have been a more significant part of the house.

Continuing the pattern of a scare zone turned house, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (KKFOS) has lots of cotton candy and popcorn for you! As a scare zone this IP worked so incredibly well that I was cautiously optimistic for the house translation. The caution was because I felt that HHN28‘s Trick ‘r Treat worked better as a scare zone (HHN27) than house. I am pleased to report that as successful the scare zone for KKFOS was, it worked equally well if not even BETTER as a house! Everything about this house works incredibly well. From the campy costumes to most memorable moments from the movie, and even the sounds of popcorn and and aroma of cotton candy permeating every nook and cranny. If you suffer from a fear of clowns, then this is definitely a house where you can face your fears!

If there is an overall weak area of HHN28, it is the scare zones. Compared to year’s past, the scare zones seemed to not be as immersive as they usually are. I was told my a team member that some of the house facades and scare zone elements were removed when it was predicted that Hurricane Dorian was going to significantly impact Orlando. As I have only been to HHN opening weekend (Fri, Sat, and Sun), I have not been back to compare what is now there compared to opening weekend. Of all the scare zones, Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe is the zone that offers guests the best experience. However, I would be remiss not to mention the brilliant laser and neon lights of Anarch-Cade! I loved the cabinet video games and all the lights that reminded me of an old-school arcade in a mall. The other zones are okay, so definitely don’t miss them. But the zones are the weakest part of the event this season. If for no other reason, they are lacking in scares.

Do not leave HHN29 without watching the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem nighttime spectacular on the lagoon. The nights I was there, it ran at 10, 11, and 12M. Although only about 10mins, it is a great way to pay tribute to Universal’s legacy of horror and each house that makes up HHN29. The music and lights are a direct extension of all the houses, full of 80s nostalgia and neon! If there is an area of improvement for the show, it would be to include some pyrotechnics. The water screens, fountains, and projections are great, but I would have liked to have seen some fireworks as well. Now I know that would be difficult with the show running multiple times, but I imagine that Universal Creative is innovative enough to develop a safe method for setting up the show to have pyro in each showing.

There you have it, folks! A complete review of Halloween Horror Nights XXIX!. As fantastic as this year is, I cannot wait to see what Universal has in store for HHN 30! Maybe we will see the return of past icons or even reimaginations of past houses. Horror Nights is running on select nights now through November 2nd. If you can afford to buy one of the frequent fear passes with express or just one night of express, then you will definitely increase your enjoyment level and minimize the negative stressors that come along with this annual event.

For my friend Dani’s review of HHN XXIX, please visit her blog too!

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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. 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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

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“The Dark Crystal” Throwback Thursday Review

With the highly anticipated The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance releasing on August 30th, I want to revisit the cult classic that is still equal parts beautiful and terrifying to this day. A couple of years ago, Fathom Events brought The Dark Crystal to the big screen, so I was able to watch this outstanding motion picture on the big screen for the first time ever. Despite the very macabre nature of many parts of the movie, my parents showed this movie to my sister and I at a young age. From the very first time we watched it, my sister and I became fans. As kids–back when kids played outside, in the woods, and in abandoned buildings using their imaginations to role play–we created characters that were ostensibly taken from the world of the movie, and spent hours imagining we were in Thra. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the spectacular production design and puppetry. I can only speculate the degree to which kid-me appreciated the artistic elements of the now iconic motion picture, but I imagine that it completely captured my imagination, otherwise I would not have rewatched it as many times as I did. As an adult, I am shocked that my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age because there are moments that terrify first-time adult audiences today. Sometime last year, I introduced this movie to my penpal, and he was blown away by how dark this fantasy movie was. Of course, this movie came out at a time that fantasies were dark (case and point, The Neverending Story). On the surface, this may be a common premise of good triumphing over evil despite adversity, but there is so much more that makes this the timeless classic that it is. Jim Henson was an incredible genius who truly knew how to combine form with function to create a fantastical masterpiece.

What stands out more than the plot itself (which is pretty straight forward), is the fantastical practical effects that give the film incredible depth–levels of dimension that CGI-heavy movies with they had but won’t ever achieve. Why? Simply because you cannot replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. The atmosphere that the setting and characters combine to make is a level of movie magic that only the genius of Jim Henson could have created. Frank Oz stated that children should not be sheltered from darkness because it is just as much a part of their lives as joy and laughter. There are some truly terrifying and sad moments in this movie. And it looks as if this sentiment is going to be channeled into the new series. The story does not shy away from topics such as torture, death, gender roles, independence, and courage. Whereas the plot itself is simple, the characters are highly complex. Moreover, each of the Skeksis represents one of the seven deadly sins, and each Mystic is the good counterpart. The gelflings represent the “human” or emotional component in the narrative, so they serve as the conduit through which we experience the plot. Aughra is our logical character whom provides the diegetic exposition to understand the gravity of the encroaching Great Conjunction. There is a beautiful poetry in how the characters all complement one another and their respective surroundings.

Although all Jim Henson movies feature muppets (Henson’s patented puppets) and other movies have puppetry, The Dark Crystal stands alone as the only film of his that is entirely puppets! Yes, you could argue that the few longshots are human actors, but that is splitting hairs. For all intents and purposes, only puppets appear in this movie. And these puppets were the most advanced to ever hit the screen, and still the most advanced puppets to have ever been witnessed on the silver screen. Fewer than 20yrs after The Dark Crystal, virtually all puppetry would be replaced with CGI to save money and time. Sacrificing experiential art for technical marvel and efficiency. These advanced puppets inspired the ones that have made appearances in Disney and Universal parks over the years. Some of the puppets had to be operated by multiple people, yet when you watch them on screen, you forget that they are a puppet because they truly exist within the fantastical world. I love how the design of each and every kind of puppet is an extension of the world in which they live. So much dimension in each and every creature. There are lines, shadows, textures, and more that CGI could never replicate. These are three-dimensional creatures that exist within a four-dimensional world that exemplify the absolutely peak of a combination of technical design, costuming, and articulated performance that the camera natively captures without need for post-production to create a significant effect after the fact. Very seldom do we get to witness such an attention to detail in the design of a character (we will get to the set soon). These puppet characters do not feel or look artificial, the manner in which the light reflects off them and they interact with the world around them gives them an outstanding ability to make us forget that there is someone pulling the strings. We emotionally connect with these characters in such a way that can so often only be done with human or animal actors.

The production design of the set is an outstanding, dazzling artistic achievement by standards then and now. You’ll be hard pressed to find another set that is created with such a high degree of tangible detail. No amount or quality of CGI can even hold a candle to the wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Thra. I absolutely love how the homes of each of the groups of characters (Skeksis, Mystics, Podlings, Gelflings, and everyone’s favorite Aughra), are designed to be an extension of the inhabitants themselves. Because there is nothing generic about any of the settings, the degree to which the lands feel real is astonishing. One of the reasons for that is because it IS real! Blue/green screen technology was still in its infancy so there was thankfully no real desire to integrate it into the set for most of the movie. However, the final scene of the movie does feature some green screen work that does not hold up today. Without a screen able to fill in the gaps for most of the movie, the artisans and craftsmen had the daunting task of bringing this world of fantasy in the age of wonder to life. And their tireless efforts pay off in spades. Diversity runs strong all through the story both visually and figuratively. No two landscapes or settings look alike, just as no two characters (even the podlings) look identical. Every line, corner, and texture radiates art. More than simply a backdrop for the scenes of the plot, the settings are essentially characters themselves. The way the characters interact with their surroundings holds the audience in an incredible suspension of disbelief as to the believability of the world that is on screen.

Although it was not a blockbuster in the US, as it was up against E.T. that same year, it was the highest grossing box office hit in France and Japan. Not being an initial box office success has not stopped the film from aging well and remaining an impressive work of art even by today’s audiences. Perhaps it is best known for being a cult classic, but that cult following has remained strong through the years. So much so that we have the Netflix prequel series with an all-star cast debuting in August. It’s refreshing to see that a prequel (or sequel) strives to embody the soul of the original in order to inspire a new generation of fans and future visual storytellers. We fell in love with the original because of the puppetry and production design, the unique characters, and fantastical elements that make it an exemplary motion picture.

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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

“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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