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

Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ma (2019) & Classic Psychobiddies

Welcome to Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-fourth episode, Brandon & Britnee compare the latest entry into the psychobiddy canon, Ma (2019), to a couple towering classics in the genre: Strait-Jacket (1964) & The Nanny (1965). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

The Shape of Water (2017)

Supposedly, Guillermo del Toro saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child and was disappointed that, at the film’s conclusion, the titular creature (also called Gill Man) was killed in a hail of bullets. This isn’t such an unusual reaction to have, given that the film borrowed some rhetorical resonance from the “Beauty and the Beast” archetypes, and hoping that the film would follow through on that emotional  thread and show the monster and his beloved achieving a kind of happily ever after isn’t that unreasonable. He sought out to correct that perceived mistake, and although it may have taken some time, he’s finally managed to put right what once went wrong with sci-fi/love story/1960s period piece The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely, mute night janitor working for Occam Aerospace Research Center in early sixties Baltimore. She is but one face in a multitude of such women, which also includes her talkative friend Delilah (Octavia Spencer), who fills the silence between the two women with stories about her home life with Bruce, the husband who causes her no end of old-school domestic strife comedy. Elisa’s is a life of precision that’s just a step out of sync with the rest of the world: instead of rising in the morning, she wakes at precisely the same time each night after the sun has set and makes the same egg-heavy breakfast meals day after day (or, rather, night after night). She also looks after her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man in his late fifties, whose intricate and perfect illustrations for advertisements have made him an unemployed dinosaur in the time of the rise of photo ads.

Elisa and Giles share a love of the divas of old Hollywood with their elaborate dance numbers and heightened emotions, which echoes the void in both of their love lives. Elisa has never fallen for anyone, and any love that may have touched Giles in his youth has long since slipped into the abyss of time. This doesn’t stop him from developing a schoolboy crush on the counter operator of a franchise pie restaurant (Morgan Kelly), but Elisa’s loneliness seems to have come to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at Occam with the “Asset” (Doug Jones), a being that is, for lack of a better term, a fishman. Elisa meets this strange creature when it takes a bite out of Strickland’s left hand and she and Delilah are called upon to mop up the blood. The two develop a bond over music and their mutual inability to express themselves verbally, until the Army orders the Asset vivisected for science. Elisa and her compatriots (along with sympathetic scientist–and secret Russian spy–Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) must find a way to save the fishman from the real monsters.

I’m a big fan of del Toro’s, as is likely evident from the fact that two of his films, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, were my favorite horror films of their respective release years. He knows how to take a tired concept like European vampires or fairy tales and suffuse them with a new energy and vitality, even if he does so by looking backward through time. As such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this isn’t exactly the most original of premises. A more dismissive reviewer or critic might call this a greatest hits compilation of plot threads from movies and TV shows like E.T. (both in the bonding between human and not, and the The government will cut you up!” angle), Hidden Figures (given that the facility is explicitly aerospace and features the presence of Spencer), Mad Men (in that both works hold a mirror up to the culture of the fifties/sixties as a reminder that to romanticize this time is to ignore many of the prevailing toxic attitudes of the time), and most heist films that you can name. That doesn’t make this film any less ambitious, however, nor does it negate the validity of the emotional reaction that the film evokes.

It’s not just the richness of the narrative text that’s laudable here, either, but the depth of the subtext as well, which even a casual del Toro viewed likely expects. I’ve been a fan of Richard Jenkins ever since his Six Feet Under days (even though it’s not one of his lines, my roommate and I quote Ruth Fischer’s “Your father is dead, and my pot roast is ruined” to each other every time one of us scorches something while cooking), and he tackles this role with a kind of giddy glee that fills the heart with warmth. There’s magic in his every moment on screen, even if his shallow adoration for the pie slinger comes across as a little rushed, narratively speaking, and there’s an understated desperation in his interactions with his former co-worker Bernard (Stewart Arnott). There’s enough of a hint that technological progress is not the only thing that cost Giles his position, and a nuanced tenderness to the dialogue between him and Bernard that hints that there may have been something between them in the past. It’s sweet and heartbreaking all at once.

Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.

Shannon is fantastic here, as he brings real, discomfiting menace to his performance in much the same way that Sergi López did as Vidal, including the arrogance of unquestioning adherence to an ideal that privileges oneself at the expense of others. This underlines the importance of this mirroring of characters as a rhetorical strategy: although Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t created with an American audience in mind, U.S. viewers could reject Vidal and his violence as being part of a different time and place, distancing themselves from his ideologies. Not so with Strickland, who lifts this veil of enforced rhetorical distance and highlights the fact that idealizing and period of the American past is nothing more than telling oneself a lie about history. It’s a powerful punch in the face of the fascist ideologies that are infiltrating our daily lives bit by bit to see such a horrible villain (admittedly/possibly a bit of a caricature, but with good reason) come undone and be overcome. It’s a further tonic to the soul to see him defeated by an alliance comprised of the “other”: a “commie,” a woman of color, a woman with a physical disability, and an older queer man.

I could be undermining that thesis by ending this review here without highlighting or praising Hawkins or Spencer’s performances, but we’re over 1200 words already, and you should stop wasting time reading this and just go see the film. Let it lift your spirit as it lifted mine.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Although it’s a fairly paint-by-numbers historical pic, Hidden Figures stands out as a moving and impressive film, and the Academy has taken notice: Figures has picked up multiple Oscar nods this year in both behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera categories. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of all that it demonstrates that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has put the old guard on notice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the current political climate is anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women, and anti-minority, and while this film doesn’t exactly stand in that gap and hold the door, it does serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

The film follows the story of three real black women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as “computers,” numerical analysts who performed and checked the calculations needed to put satellites into orbit, and later to send the first men into the cold vacuum that lies between the stars and bring them down to earth again. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician who becomes an engineer, alongside Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, who leads the “colored women” computing group as a de facto supervisor despite being denied the prestige, title, and remuneration of that position. The cast is largely led by Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a mathematical and physics genius who is instrumental in the calculations that are used to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and save him from destruction on re-entry. Rounding out the cast are Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s foil, an obstructionist gatekeeper, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, the head engineer of the Space Task Group, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director to whom both Stafford and Katherine Goble report, Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Jim Johnson, and Aldis Hodge (so good to see you, Aldis, I’ve missed you so much since Leverage went off the air) as Mary’s husband Levi.

As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and declared that “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers. What Harrison initially perceives as a failure in his subordinate’s work ethic is, in reality, a fact of her existence to which he is blind because of his privilege; in fact, his position of power has rendered him so above and outside of this concern that the fact it exists is a shock to him. It’s not exactly subtle, but when the truth has to still be dropped like an anvil from the sky fifty years after the fact, there’s no room for subtlety.

Characters like Stafford and Vivian Mitchell could easily be construed as caricatures, but Hidden Figures reminds us that this same kind of oppression is still ongoing. Post-bathroom-desegregation, Vivian and Dorothy both emerge from bathroom stalls and Vivian (who at this point has blocked Dorothy from a promotion to supervisor and taken no small satisfaction in the way that the goalposts have been moved for Mary’s transition to engineer) tells Dorothy that she has “nothing against [her] kind,” she just does her job. Dorothy gives her the only answer that she can: “I know . . . that you probably believe that.” It’s a stark reminder that “following orders” to maintain an immoral status quo isn’t just used as self-justification for the enablers and perpetrators of genocide in a distant past, it’s something that happens every day, hindering progress at every half-step.

There’s a lot to parse in this film, straightforward though it may seem, certainly far more than can be contained in this review (and, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this discourse is limited by the horizons of my privilege as a white cisman), but Hidden Figures gets a strong recommendation from me. Catch it in theaters if you can; and, if you can’t, make sure to rent it somehow to show to your ignorant friends and family next holiday. Just be prepared to admit that maybe it is hard to buy Glen “Chad Radwell” Powell as American hero John Glenn.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Fruitvale Station (2011)

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“I wanted the audience to get to know the guy, to get attached, so that when the situation that happens to him happens, it’s not just like you read it in the paper, you know what I mean? When you know somebody as a human being you know that life means something.” -Ryan Coogler

Director Ryan Coogler has got to be one of the most exciting young filmmakers working today, right? I went into last year’s explosive boxing world drama Creed as a mildly curious Sylvester Stallone fan & left a wildly enthusiastic fan of Coogler’s touch. There’s an intimacy, violence, and empathy to that film that it had no right to carry as the seventh installment of a franchise that’s been barely limping along the last few years/decades. Ryan Coogler & Michael B Jordan gave off some Scorsese-De Niro vibes in the symbiotic way they commanded that film, a partnership they plan to carry over into the upcoming MCU episode Black Panther. What really blows my mind now is that Coogler & Jordan had already teamed up once before Creed, which apparently wasn’t even their best work to date.

Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, is the best of the director’s work so far, a truly haunting film that’s blunt in its intent, yet delicate & measured in execution. The film follows the final hours of Oscar Grant, a real life victim of police brutality who was wrongfully gunned down on New Year’s Day in 2009 at a San Franciscan rail car station. Although it’s doubtful that the Coogler & Jordan collaborative legacy is anywhere near its end, their first outing together might long prove to be their most effective. Fruitvale Station makes extremely bold choices not only in its subject, but also in decisions like including real footage of Oscar Grant’s final moments & post-burial aftermath as bookends to his story. In a way, the film’s intent to familiarize an outside audience with a faceless victim of police violence has a gentle edge to it, but the real-life footage of Grant’s tragedy/murder chills audiences to the bone before the film can even get there. As you follow a young man unknowingly marked for execution on his final day on Earth you’re never allowed to forget that he was a real person who really lived & really died in this senseless way. The result of that opening assault is never-ending, forever haunting.

So, what does Oscar Grant do for his last day alive? Not much. He plans a dinner to celebrate his mother’s birthday, spoils his kid, parties with other New Year’s Eve revelers, and tries his damnedest to hold onto a dead end job so he doesn’t have to return to a life of selling dope. It’s so eerie to watch someone act so casually on their last day breathing, especially when the film’s mood shifts from introspection to celebration minutes before Oscar is handcuffed & shot in the back for getting into a mostly harmless fight. There might be some artistic liberties Coogler takes with Grant’s exact story (such as a touching encounter he has with an injured street dog), but they serve a larger purpose: showing Oscar for the normal dude he was & explaining how he was murdered by police explicitly for being a young black man in the wrong place & time. A lot of this same territory was later covered by last year’s fierce satirical comedy Driving While Black, but even that triumph of political filmmaking is outshined by the day-in-the-life portrait Coogler & Jordan construct here.

Tragically, typifying examples of police murder cases like Michael Brown & Eric Garner have only grown in numbers since Oscar Grant was needlessly shot in the back in 2009. With each passing year Fruitvale Station becomes an even more powerful &  necessary work. I’m glad to see Coogler move on & make bigger Hollywood productions as his career quickly progresses, but I hope he uses some of that newfound capital to return to the potency of his debut sometime in the future. It’s no small feat to reveal to the audience exactly what’s going to happen in your opening scene & then deliver a tense, heartfelt drama minute to minute in its wake despite that inevitability. Fruitvale Station cuts you deep with a real life tragedy in its opening gut punch, but then somehow lures you into a casual comfort before devastating you by repeating the exact same act of senseless violence in its final moments. It’s a tense, pointed work from a young director who surely has plenty more coming & I’m excited to see where he’s taking us next, even if the destinations are as grim as they are here. Especially then.

-Brandon Ledet