Remember that cluster of Psycho Bitch From Hell movies from the late ’80s and early ‘90s – Fatal Attraction and Misery, followed by Basic Instinct, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Crush, and a dozen direct-to-video equivalents. In all of them, a hapless protagonist lets a seemingly pleasant woman into their lives only to find her turning things upside-down and subjecting them to all manner of horrible punishment.
There were think-pieces about how the cycle reflected male anxieties about empowered women or the way traditional female roles like mistress, homemaker, nurse, or nanny were turned into sinister archetypes. And, to be fair, there were a ton of Psycho Bastard From Hell films, like The Hitcher or Unlawful Entry, to balance things out. The genre never quite went away, perhaps because many leading ladies or character actresses relish juicy villain roles after playing so many stuck-in-the-background wives or love interests – and I suspect the whole motivation for reviving the form in Ma is to give Octavia Spencer something meaty to chew on as SueAnn, a cheery middle-aged veterinary assistant who becomes den mother to the local teens in a dead-end town but has a long-term motive to commit mass murder dating back to her own teenage years (which, coincidentally, must have been about the time that The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was on cinema screens).
The strongest of these films had the simplest hooks – a psycho fan, nanny, mistress – and Ma doesn’t quite manage that, in that the character’s status isn’t entirely defined. She’s the irresponsible adult who buys liquor for teens and lets them party in her basement, patronised but depended on, and clearly sending out crazy vibes that even the dimmest kids recognise. In a sub-plot, she also seems to have Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy as she keeps her own daughter (Tanyell Waivers) a virtual prisoner and insists that she’s very sick, administering injections that might not have a medical purpose. Scotty Landes’ script is a bit of a jumble, developing slowly and creepily for the first hour before getting to more outrageous gore and melodramatics in a muddled finale that feels like a random shuffle of different drafts.
The protagonist is new-in-town, eager-to-fit-in teen Maggie (Diana Silvers), whose own mother (Juliette Lewis) was in the in-crowd who gave SueAnn a hard time in school (Lewis, of course, was in the menaced teen in the major Psycho Bastard film Cape Fear) … while guest stars Luke Evans, Missi Pyle and Allison Janney get to be vividly, cartoonishly horrid as the names on the top of Ma’s shit list, which makes the rest of the teen crew who get lesser (but still ghastly) punishments a bit of an irrelevance (the other kids are McKayley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Dante Brown and Gianni Paolo). This is are rare Psycho Bitch movie with an African-American female lead, and there’s a neat bit of post-Get Outtery as she literally whites out another black character, citing the convention that there’s only room for one token in any given movie. The tone wavers between sensitive indie drama and dumb but fun horror, which Spencer is more than capable of handling – it’s a shame that director Tate Taylor, who handled Spencer’s breakout The Help but also muddled through The Girl on the Train, doesn’t seem as comfortable working in this field, though he does pop in for a neat bit as an actor.