Ask any of the chickies in my pen/They’ll tell you I’m the biggest mutha hen
I love them all and all of them love me.
Because the system works, the system called reciprocity.
Got a little motto/Always sees me through
When you’re good to Mama/Mama’s good to you.
There’s a lot of favors/I’m prepared to do
You do one for Mama/She’ll do one for you.
— Matron Mama Morton from Chicago
I love Octavia Spencer. I love, love, love, love Octavia Spencer. I love her so much that, I think I probably should’ve added five more “loves” in that first sentence. Perhaps one of my biggest regrets was the year I was at the Critics’ Choice Awards and The Shape of Water was up for some awards. I was talking to an actor from that film (Richard Jenkins) when Octavia walked by. I wanted to stop him mid-sentence to go tell her how great she was, and how fabulous Hidden Figures was. Since that movie, she was instrumental in getting Green Book made (the best movie of last year), she’s in one of the best pictures of this year (Luce, which hasn’t been released yet), had a nice role in Instant Family. Now she’s having a blast terrorizing kids in this. And the audience will all have a blast watching it. My wife and I sure did.
Who would’ve thought that director Tate Taylor (who disappointed me with his films The Girl on the Train and The Help, also with Octavia Spencer), would knock it out of the park with this humorous, campy, intense psychological thriller?
The movie starts with a girl (Diana Silvers, who was good in her small part in Booksmart) moving to a new town and quickly making friends with the popular kids. They’re on their way to a party and stop to make a beer run. In a sign that this movie was going to have some sharp dialogue, the things the kids are saying as they try to get adults to buy them beer, was great. The African-American boy attempts it, but with no success, claiming the town is racist. The new girl doesn’t have much luck, either. It isn’t until Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) walks by with her 3-legged dog and agrees to do it. Since we’ve all seen the trailers and know she’s going to end up torturing this group, we’re already on the edge of our seats. After a few more times of her being their beer mule, she suggests they use the basement of her home for their party. Of course, she’s not going to let them drink and drive so…she’ll have to confiscate those car keys from you, young man.
And you know what? You may think I’m giving things away, but I’m not. This movie keeps teasing us with moments when we think she’s going to go off the rails, and it doesn’t happen for a while. That allows such great tension to build up. All along the way, we’re laughing at the funny dialogue (which is a nice change of pace, from usually laughing at the unintentionally funny things in cheesy horror films).
Aside from Blumhouse being smart enough to cast the immensely talented Octavia Spencer in this role (did I mention I love her?), they were smart to have a great supporting cast. Allison Janney has a handful of scenes as the snotty boss of Sue Ann at the veterinarian clinic (any guess whether any animals die in this?). Juliette Lewis plays Erica, the mom of the new kid in town, who also feels sheepish about coming back to her small hometown after moving to California to “make it.” She has to take a job as a cocktail waitress, which is a role that you’d think is perfect for Juliette Lewis, but she is actually convincing as a caring and decent parent.
It’s always enjoyable when a script has good writing, how it manifests itself in even the small details. For example, when the boss is yelling at Sue Ann to get off the phone, she has a point. When Sue Ann (who is now called “Ma” by the group of teens) starts to insert herself a little too much into their lives, they quickly realize she’s a bit creepy. One of the girls (McKaley Miller) even sends a video text out saying they should all block her. Any guesses on which girl that is that you see in the trailers? I’ll give you a hint — it involves a sewing kit.
Another smart aspect of the writing is how the story makes us care about these people. We see some backstory on Ma that makes us feel bad for the life she had as a teen, and the life she leads now. The group of teenagers isn’t so obnoxious you root for their demise. They live in a small town and…it doesn’t look like there’s a lot for them to do. Besides, one of them has a dad (Luke Evans, from The Girl on the Train) that’s a real tool. One of the police officers even says that (played by the director, Tate Taylor).
Missi Pyle plays Mercedes, who has a bit of a drinking problem and seems to be a bit skanky.
When the parties go down in Ma’s basement, you hear a lot of old school dance tunes. It makes you wonder if she is providing the tunes for the group as well.
Watching Sue Ann do the robot to Funky Town, makes it the best use of that song since Dumb and Dumber. And what she does at the beginning of Kung Fu Fighting, and the look on her face as she circles the beer cans, might be the hardest I laughed in a movie all year.
I love that so many things reminded me of other movies, but in a good way. In the beginning when the new girl asks if smoking the vape pen that she’s handed is dangerous, she’s told, “You can smoke as much as you want until you’re like 25. Then you quit and nothing bad will happen.” It reminded me of something Eric Stoltz said to Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Other times, I thought — oh, that’s like the scene in Fatal Attraction. This scene is similar to Silence of the Lambs. Hey…that reminds me of Play Misty for Me. Oh, I wonder if she’s going to hobble this guy like in Misery.
Now it’s a bit like Sixth Sense, now Boxing Helena and Hard Candy.
Oh, this is a little like Clueless and when a girl comes out of a broom closet…it’s like Carrie. Yet every time I thought of those other movies, it was a similar scene done in an original way.
The cinematography by Christina Voros helps add a bit to the uneasiness of the crazy that’s happening all around Ma.
The violence in the third act got to be a bit much, but some of it also worked. We jumped out of our seats. We squirmed in our seats. We wanted to yell, “Don’t go down in that basement!”
Go see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.
3 ½ stars out of 5.