Ma (2019)

One of the more unexpected pop culture joys of 2019 has been the mainstream revival of the psychobiddy genre. What started as a dual career rejuvenator for Old Hollywood legends Bette Davis & Joan Crawford in the camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stuck around for much of the 60s & 70s for other aged-out-of-leading-roles actresses like Shelly Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Tallulah Bankhead, and Olivia de Havilland in lesser drive-in marquee filler. Coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the “Grand Damme” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation,” the post-Baby Jane tradition of actresses Hollywood deemed too old to be fuckable reviving their careers in dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level has given us some of the greatest slices of over-the-top schlock ever seen on the big screen. If nothing else, I’d easily rank the William Castle picture Strait-Jacket, which cast Joan Crawford as an axe-wielding maniac, among the greatest films ever made – full stop. I welcome any signs of a new psycobiddy wave with open arms, then, even if the genre label could be construed as a cruel insult to the actors cast as leads under that umbrella. 2019 hagsplotation has given us Isabelle Huppert dancing her way through over-the-top cartoon villainy in Greta, Robin Riker tormenting her pregnant granddaughter in the Lifetime movie Psycho Granny, and now Octavia Spencer partying with (and cruelly torturing) teens in the Blumhouse horror Ma. I sincerely hope there’s more to come.

The only thing preventing Ma from fully participating in psychobiddy tradition is the age & status of its star. At less than 50 years old and appearing in Oscar-worthy features as recently as the 2017 Best Picture-winner The Shape of Water, Octavia Spencer should likely be disqualified from being considered in a hagsploitation context. Every other aspect of Ma qualifies her performance and her character arc for the label, though. Like all psychobiddy villains, Ma is a sympathetic sadist who was only driven into violence & madness by a world that was cruel to her in the past. That sympathy does little to soften the severity of her crimes, though, as she veers from menacing threats & light stalking into full-on slasher villain & torture porn tropes as her psychoses worsen. Most importantly, the character is an excellent acting showcase for Octavia Spencer’s full range as a talent who’s too often relegated to one-note supporting roles. She’s given room to run wild here as a full-blown one-woman spectacle, often tearing through every emotion & tone imaginable with a machine gun efficiency: the deep hurt of a wounded animal, the slack-jawed thousand-yard stare of a Norman Bates descendent, the jubilant dancing of an invincible party girl, and the disarming sweetness of a family friend you’ve know your entire life. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

A group of fatally bored teens waste away their youth in a small industrial town by drinking & vaping at the old rock quarry – the exact drab spot where their parents guzzled liquor decades in the past. After allowing the teens to talk her into purchasing their alcohol for them, an unassuming vet tech (Spencer) feigns concern that the kids might be drinking & driving and offers them an enticing alternative to their usual weekend spot: her basement. Gradually, all the teens in the area start partying in Ma’s basement as if it were a hot new nightclub, but Ma herself remains fixated on the few teens from the initial group, inserting herself into their lives outside the bounds of the party. Caught between enjoying the teenage popularity she was never afforded as a bullied outsider in her youth and avenging a mysterious trauma that’s haunted her since high school, Ma fluctuates between a fun party girl and a murderous biddy psychopath with the flip of a switch. She dances The Robot and karate-chops pyramids of beer cans like the party mom these kids ever had. She also stalks the teens she obsesses over the most on social media, eventually attempting to permanently collect them in her basement as tortured captives. The best moments of the film are when these two modes clash, as when she mutters the lyrics to Debbie Deb’s club jam “Look Out Weekend” to herself while maniacally scrapbooking. Spencer is mostly a wonder for being able to alternate between these tones with rapid-fire efficiency, often playing sane & friendly in one beat then zoning out in a lapse moment of murderous meditation the next.

The filmmaking craft in Ma is similarly all over the place, but to more of a frustrating effect. The film opens with the cheap inspo-pop & teen melodrama of a CW series, but also conjures occasional surprises like the drastic split-diopter shots of a classic De Palma thriller. In either instance, neither the visual stylings of Tate Taylor nor the inner lives of Ma’s teenage victims are the draw in this picture. This is purely Octavia Spencer’s show, and she adeptly delivers all the tragedy, fun, and cruelty you could possibly want from this kind of genre trash. She may be a little too young and a little too prestigious to be indulging in a psychobiddy thriller at this point in her career, but the result is so deliciously campy & genuinely upsetting that it would be foolish to complain about the method. Ma is an A+ actor’s showcase in a psychobiddy context, a clear standout in the genre’s (albeit minor) 2019 revival.

-Brandon Ledet

Us (2019)

“I’m not very good at talking.”

He’s done it again, ladies and gentlemen (and assorted individuals of a nonbinary nature). Jordan Peele has submitted his CV for any and all who might have been foolish enough to have doubted his legacy as the heir apparent to Rod Serling (or Hitchcock, or Shyamalan if you live in a particularly uncharitable part of the internet). The second film helmed by the director who inexplicably turned Blumhouse Productions into a semi-prestige film production house because they were the only ones willing to take a chance on Get Out is more ambitious than its predecessor, meaning that sometimes it swings a bit wider but ultimately has the same meticulous attention to detail, from literal Chekovian guns to a multitude of characters being literally and metaphorically reflected in surfaces both pristine and cracked to even something so small as apparently intentionally offbeat snapping.

Us opens with a birthday outing for young Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1986, where her loving but inattentive and immature father and her worried mother take her around the carnival games while arguing, obviously not for the first time. When Pops (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is distracted by a game of Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and finds herself lost and terrified in a hall of mirrors, where her reflection stares back at her from every angle . . . except one. Later, the traumatized and speechless girl sits outside of a child psychologist’s office, who explains to the parents that Adelaide appears to be suffering from PTSD, prompting mom (Anna Diop) to declare that she just wants her daughter back, back to the way she was before. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to the nerdy but devoted Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is considering quitting the track team, and elementary aged Jason (Evan Alex), an apparent budding horror fan who wears a Wolfman mask as much as possible. They go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation, where Gabe proudly shows off the boat (the Craw-Daddy) that he has recently purchased, and he convinces his wife to take the kids down to beach for the day to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their two teen twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). At the same beachfront where something unknown but traumatic happened to her as a child, odd coincidences begin to occur: a red frisbee lands on a towel covered in blue polka dots, perfectly covering one of them; a man that she recognizes from her childhood as a boardwalk vagrant is seen being loaded into a waiting ambulance, and Jason wanders off just as she herself had before he appears, none the worse for wear. Back home, Adelaide tells Gabe about the night that changed her life, moments before Jason appears in the room to tell his parents that there’s a family in their driveway. And then the real fear begins.

Us is a movie that it’s almost impossible to discuss without getting into spoilers (and not just about the ending twist, which is one of those perfect reversals in that about 5% of people are complaining about how “obvious” it was, 10% of people are complaining about how it was “spoiled” by promotional materials, 60% of people are pleasantly surprised by how it was cleverly seeded within the text and fits so perfectly that one realizes the story couldn’t actually exist in any other form, and 25% of people are vocally overemoting about it to any audience that will give them the satisfaction), but we’ll try. From the earliest moments, including the scene of little Adelaide watching an advertisement for Hands Across America (which apparently some people thought was made up for the film, which is sad because that means those people have never known the joy of watching classic Simpsons, apparently) on a television that is framed by VHS copies of the films The Goonies, The Right Stuff, and C.H.U.D. (the last of which prompted one of my friends to text me that the scene made him feel like he was at my house for a second, which warmed the cockles of my cold dead heart) before the screen goes blank to reveal the reflection of young Adelaide, soaking it all in. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, the repeated number 1111 (as a time, a Bible verse, and even evocatively in the logo for Black Flag, appearing on several characters’ clothing), Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the meaning of the line “We are Americans”: as with Get Out, no detail is too small to warrant inspection, even if this time around Peele is playing with audience expectation and subverting a more obvious and consistent interpretation of his symbolism for a more thoughtful and disquieting notion of significance. It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there.

Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that “I Got 5 On It” is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (“I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it”). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?

The performances here are powerful. It takes a powerful actor to be able to embody two different characters within a single work, and Nyong’o joins the ranks of Tricia Helfer and Tatiana Maslany in her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger, “Red.” Red’s initial monologue that explains herself and her family in the format of a twisted fairy tale is particularly astonishing, as is her final speech. Duke is fantastic as the embarrassing dad as well, and every moment that he is on screen is a delight. As of this writing, I’m pretty sure that Brandon hasn’t gotten a chance to see this one (event though he is editing this review), so I’m choosing my words very carefully, but this movie comes with my highest recommendations, with a few caveats. I’m not a person who lets minor unresolved details derail my enjoyment of a film, but for those who are prone to pick at nits, there are . . . logistical issues that are never specifically addressed and which are ambiguous enough that I have no doubt those who require not only absolute realism but also utter explicitness in their art would consider them “plot holes.” So, you know, don’t take that friend with you (don’t worry, we all have at least one). Just get out and see this one, although from the box office numbers, you probably already have.

P.S.: My favorite joke is the fact that the “find yourself” hall of mirrors, subtly, has gotten a more socially conscious rebrand in 2019 to get rid of the Native American legends and myths motif for a more politically correct wizard.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Truth or Dare (2018)

There are two competing gimmicks at war with each other in the gleefully idiotic trash-horror Truth or Dare?. As suggested in the title, one gimmick involves a supernatural, deadly version of the schoolyard game truth-or-dare that drives the film both to explorations of contrived ethical dilemmas and to even more contrived novelty indulgences in demonic possession clichés. As delightfully silly as a haunted truth-or-dare game is for a horror movie premise, though, it’s not the gimmick that most endeared the film to me. It’s Truth or Dare?’s stylistic gimmick as The Snapchat Filter Horror Movie that really stole my trash-gobbling heart. Whenever demonically possessed participants prompt contestants in the titular game to answer “Truth or dare?” their faces are altered with cheap digital effects to display a sinister, impossible grin. It’s a design that unmistakably resembles a Snapchat filter, which is explicitly acknowledged in the dialogue when a character reports, “It looked like a messed-up Snapchat filter.” I’ve already exhaustively stressed in the past how important high-concept/low-budget horrors about the evils of the Internet are for being willing to document what modern life online looks & feels like in a way that classier productions would tend to avoid. Films like Unfriended, #horror, Afflicted, and so on are doing more to preserve the history of modern online communication than they’re given credit for, specifically because they’re willing to exploit pedestrian trash mediums like Skype, Candy Crush, and webcasting as foundational gimmicks for feature-length narratives. For its own part, Truth or Dare? has earned its place in cheap horror’s academic documentation of online discourse by exploiting Snapchat filter technology as a dirt-cheap scare delivery system. As silly as its titular gimmick can be, it wouldn’t have deserved camp cinema legacy without that secondary Snapchat filter gimmick backing it up.

It’s tempting to bail on enjoying Truth or Dare? in its initial setup & character introductions, which make for a very shaky first act. In an opening sequence so cliché it was parodied in The Cabin in the Woods a half-decade ago, a group of college age friends embark on their Last Spring Break Together and are met with a supernatural evil on the journey. Lured into a drunken, late-night round of truth-or-dare by a mysterious stranger in an even more mysterious abandoned Mexican church, the group is locked into a demonically-possessed version of the schoolyard game that follows them home and threatens their lives. Taking turns in several rounds, each character is challenged by hallucinations of the Snapchat Filter Demon into following through on truth-or-dare prompts or violently dying in refusal. Besides a closeted gay character and hilariously oblivious party bro (“I can’t say no to shots. Everybody knows that.”), none of these College Kid archetypes especially stand out as distinct individuals. They’re instead used as personality-free placeholders for the movie’s deployment in awkwardly staged moral dilemmas. The dares indicated by the film’s title are almost exclusively acts of lethal violence, but the real hook of the premise is in exposing the truth behind people’s desire to be seen as charitable & good. The demonic game of truth-or-dare forces characters to act out their unspoken desires and to confess their most shameful secrets in grand displays of public humiliation. The hidden selfishness of the self-righteous is a particular fixation of the game, as characters are challenged to back up statements like “I didn’t have a choice” or to prove claims that they’d sacrifice their own lives to save many strangers’. Honesty is the most highly valued virtue in Truth or Dare?’s worldview and it’s one the movie searches for in the most gleefully cruel ways possible.

Although the initial setup is a little labored (a probable side-effect of having five writers share one screenplay), Truth or Dare? gets exponentially more ludicrous (and, thus, fun) as its titular game escalates, ending on a surprisingly ambitious note with implications that are incredibly far-reaching & clever, considering the film’s lowly starting point. It’s possible to find more fully committed versions of the film’s central gimmicks in better works. The pitch-black exploitation comedy Cheap Thrills offers an even more cruel indulgence in depicting a series of violent dares gone out of hand. While Truth or Dare? verbally admits its Shapchat filter gimmick in the dialogue and adopts cell phone aspect ratios in its opening credits, it has nothing on the fully-committed Sickhouse, which is essentially a The Blair Witch Project remake staged through a series of Snapchat posts (and originally posted on the Snapchat app itself). Nerve might even be a better midpoint between the two gimmicks, where a series of escalating dares are filtered through the language of social media. The acting & character work in Truth or Dare? are aggressively bland. The music feels like faux-inspirational Chariots of Fire/allergy medicine commercial runoff. The PG-13 rating indicates both its potential for truly disturbing violence and its loyalty to genre cliché. On the Blumhouse scale, this film is more Happy Death Day than Get Out. On the Evil Internet horror scale, it’s more Friend Request than Unfriended. Still, its specificity as a Snapchat filter horror (as opposed to a Snapchat platform horror) distinguishes it from previous app-based schlock and its follow-through on the implications of its demonic truth-or-dare premise wholly makes up for its first act unease. If nothing else, I can report that the film’s ending is the most satisfying trash-horror resolution I’ve seen since the evil doll cheapie The Boy, a reference I intend as the highest of compliments (it did rank high on our collective Top Films of 2016 list, after all). Between leaving me on that high note and generating its terror through a disposable mode of online discourse, Truth or Dare? very easily endeared itself to me. I wish more people were having this much fun with it.

-Brandon Ledet