The psychological horror movie “Ma” at first seems perfectly serviceable, but underneath, it’s a curious combination.
It comes from Blumhouse Productions, the scrappy company that profits with misfit, low-budget franchises like “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” “The Purge” and “Happy Death Day,” in addition to the great “Get Out.”
But it’s directed by Tate Taylor, who made the unremarkable and benign, yet somehow semi-important “The Help,” “Get on Up” and “The Girl on the Train.”
Taylor goes nuts with an “R” rating, showing teens drinking, smoking pot and vaping, passing out, not remembering things, disrespecting elders, making out and swearing like sailors. And a decent amount of blood splashes about.
However, the director’s approach is similar to a teen downing a shot of Fireball Whisky. It’s as if the makers of “Ma” were having fun slumming, giggling and snorting, but with no concept of how a movie could be truly affecting or disturbing.
Octavia Spencer certainly has enough talent to go deep, if anyone cared enough to give her a chance. (Check out her greatness in “Fruitvale Station,” “Snowpiercer,” “Hidden Figures” and “The Shape of Water.”)
The clockwork-plotted movie begins with teen Maggie (Diana Silvers), new in town, where her single mother (Juliette Lewis) has landed a job in a sleazy casino.
Maggie easily falls in with a group of locals, and even gets a nice boyfriend, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), who’s the designated driver for the teens who drink frequently to alleviate their small-town boredom.
Spencer plays Sue Ann, assistant to a local veterinarian (a humorously grumpy post-”I, Tonya” Allison Janney).
First seen walking a tripod dog, Sue Ann agrees to buy booze for the friends. The outing that night involves the cops being called, and Sue Ann invites the group back to her place, allowing them to use her basement as a “safe” place to party.
Yet Sue Ann has secrets; she’s teetering on the edge of full psychopath. The movie illustrates her issue with a simple flashback, broken into segments to make it seem like it should add up to something more than it actually does.
It’s not exactly nothing, but it’s not enough for the Freddy Krueger-nightmare the movie wants her to be. There’s no direct trigger from her teen trauma to present-day.
In one small scene, a telling tidbit of what could have been, a few clueless teens take advantage of her alcohol-buying ability and then brush her off. Rejected, she sits in her car and weeps. The movie doesn’explore what has broken her heart. She could have been a pitiable figure, with recognizable hurts, but “Ma” simply defines her as a monster.
This flatness of character extends to the rest of the cast, who kill time without urgency or agency. Silvers, for example, appears in Olivia Wilde’s recent, excellent “Booksmart” with more vibrancy in much less screen time.
Lewis, usually a ferocious scene-stealer (even in bad movies), is also weirdly muted, unable to make much of her casino-set scenes, decked in a low-cut vest and bow-tie. The movie seems to assert that, as soon as the teen-party years end, humans become burnt-out husks.
In one scene, Lewis’ Erica lounges on the couch, and announces to Maggie that she’s binging John Hughes movies (“Have you ever seen ‘Pretty in Pink’”?) It’s an inadvertent reminder of movie characters that once contained an inner life, a kind of aching and yearning that “Ma” is blatantly missing.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans
Written by: Scotty Landes
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes