Ma: An Underrated Camp Classic

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Cael Brennan

Octavia Spencer, a celebrated and academy award-winning actress with roles reaching the heights of arguably ‘iconic’ stature. An actress who with her excellent contributions to underrated modern camp/horror classic Ma (2019), will join the ranks of actresses whom’s performances and their respective films will be relished for their overlooked greatness. 

The term underrated and horror movies seem to habitually appear every bit more often among each other as the years pass. Films once cast aside for their proposed vapidness, have become lauded in the past decade for their unseen entertainment value or actual substantive meanings, such as within cult classics like Jennifer’s Body. I believe Ma (2019) will share the legacy of movies like Jennifer’s Body. It is within the movie’s framework to become a new point of critical analysis, a movie that begs the question, why did people not like this?

Perhaps saying “people didn’t like this”, may not accurately reflect the massive critical and audience floundering Ma (2019) experienced. One such review I point to is from Alex Hudson, a critic from the infamous movie evaluation site “Rotten Tomatoes” who stated, “We gradually learn more about Ma’s backstory, and the only real twist is how mundane it all is.” 

Ma Being Quirky

I think the reason this criticism struck me so heavily is because of how unfounded I find his use of the word “mundane” to be. In the past five years with the reinstatement of the word “camp” (an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical) into our modern lexicon after such a visible uplifting of the words lineage and affectionate history with the LGBTQ+ community, many filmmakers have looked to the practice of crafting high camp movies that share the sentiment ‘more is more.’ However, I can definitively say that Ma (2019) stands out as the most glorious showing in camp a piece of cinema has been able to deliver in the past five years.

Ma (2019) actually seems to work on the notion that anything possibly irking ‘mundane’ is reductive to the movie’s ethos. A very captivating method to making a horror movie, but arguably what is more enthralling is that the movie does not even seem to be self-aware of its excess in all senses of the world. The cast of stereotypical teenagers ranging from pouty to problematic suggests a by-the-books screamer. Whilst Octavia Spencer’s dedicated performance as the titular Ma inquires thoughts like “are we supposed to take this movie as seriously as The Shape of Water or The Help?” It can be noted that the contrast between expectation and the actual layout of events on screen does nothing but enhance experiencing Ma (2019). 

Queen behavior

For a quick simple movie summary, the largest focus of the plot goes as follows. A group of teenagers befriends veterinarian assistant Sue Ann outside a liquor store as she assists them in getting beers. Sue Ann does so after recognizing one of the teens to be the son of Sue Ann’s high school crush that humiliated her in front of the entire student body, an action that audiences are led to assume has morphed much of her aggression. Shortly after getting them alcohol, the teens are invited to Sue Ann’s basement for “a safe place” to drink and do seemingly whatever they want. The downward trajectory begins when Sue Ann asks the kids to call her “Ma” and to “come back whenever and invite whomever they may wish.” What emerges from that introductory night is a co-dependent relationship of Ma developing a sense of fulfilling the high school life she had been made to be exempt from, and routine ragers hosted for dozens of high schoolers in Ma’s basement. To quickly notate, these partying scenes are so funny in all the right ways, seeing Octavia Spencer do the robot to funky town kills me every time. However, things quickly become obsessive when our core group of teenagers begins to pull away from Ma’s already pushy nature. Foregoing massive spoilers, let’s just say that a video message condemning Ma made by the teens causes Sue Ann to commit some unspeakable acts and reveal to viewers many of her largely hidden skeletons within her closet. 

Ma Dancing At Party

If the summary seemed drab, I promise a movie decorated with actions like kidnap, running people over, faking breast cancer, and sporadic outbursts of aggression being captured by one of the most respected actresses does not disappoint. In fact, everything I could have wanted from this movie was delivered and largely exceeded. Spencer’s ability to handle every scene of this movie is such a commendable feat. Within moments ranging from the faint chuckle of accomplishment and deranged stares up to bombastic high camp-horror come together for an all-out assault of acting ability. The plot although indeed everywhere is linear enough to really allow these scenes to captivate. All in all Ma (2019) really just is a good movie. None of the perhaps shotty plot devices are detrimental to a film that really just cares to entertain.

I recommend the movie to anyone who wishes to take a break from the intellectually taxing horror masterpieces like “Hereditary”, or an elevation from the bargain bin jumpscare fests that need not have good acting when there is shock value. Ma (2019) is a watch like no other, by the end of my first time seeing it with friends I was practically writhing in laughter. Also, when does Octavia Spencer not deserve the entirety of our attention? The woman is a living legend that seems to be consistently overlooked as being just that. Either way with news from creator Tate Taylor that a sequel is in the works that will continue to feature Octavia Spencer, I’m entirely excited to say the least.