Kids, kids, kids, you need to make better decisions. Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie? I guess not, because in “Ma,” the latest from low-budget genre mavens Blumhouse, a bunch of unruly teens continually make poor choices. Which is bad for them but a blast for bloodthirsty fans.
Maggie (Diana Silvers, “Booksmart”) relocates to the small Southern hometown of her mother (Juliette Lewis), where there’s nothing to do but drink at the aptly named “Rock Pile.” She meets a crew of generic teen types — party girl, hunk, jock, sweet boy. When lonely vet tech Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) buys them booze and lets them party in her basement, they think they’ve stumbled upon the Holy Grail, even though it’s clear things aren’t entirely on the level.
The young actors are fine; they do what’s asked of them, which is to play to type. Silvers has the most actual work, embodying new-girl awkwardness and a good-but-strained relationship at home. McKaley Miller as Haley, the snarky woo-girl of the bunch, dives headfirst into her character and gives it her all. The rest are basically set dressing.
Spencer is the true star of “Ma,” out of control in the best possible way. Gleefully manipulative and subtly vicious, she has shadowy ulterior motives. Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and writer Scotty Landes dole out information as necessary, using flashbacks to clarify her motivations. As Sue Ann’s endgame comes into focus, the darkness grows.
It’s obvious how much Spencer relishes this role. There’s immediately something off with Ma, as the kids call her — the first night, she pulls a gun on them. As a joke. Hysterical, right? But they overlook these warning signs for the sake of convenience, thinking she’s just lonely. They have second thoughts, however, when her behavior escalates, bumping up from uncomfortable interactions to full-blown cackling, Faye-Dunaway-with-a-coat-hanger unhinged.
“Ma” mostly squanders a weirdly familiar cast of adults. Lewis has the biggest role, though most of that is spent finding excuses for her to leave Maggie unattended. Missi Pyle and Luke Evans chew scenery as local fixtures, and Allison Janney has a part so small and pointless you question whether it’s actually her.
A collection of potentially interesting, and horrifying, side plots never develop or go anywhere. “Ma” is generally stripped-down and up-tempo without much time to waste or dilly dally.
A weird, often hilarious, mean-spirited bit of contemporary exploitation cinema, “Ma” echoes “Carrie” and various earlier horror films. Spencer’s bonkers turn makes the movie, smoothing over plot holes, questionable decision making and a clunky if well-intentioned anti-bullying message.
Campy and goofy, vicious and bloody, if that sounds like a good time, you might have a lot of fun partying with “Ma,” even if you won’t remember much tomorrow.
★★★ “Ma,” with Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney. Directed by Tate Taylor, from a screenplay by Scotty Landes. 99 minutes. Rated R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Opens May 31 at multiple theaters.