(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood or how classic Hollywood continues to influence modern filmmaking.)

With our current nostalgia boom in full swing, there’s certainly a fair amount of fatigue invading our daily viewing. This could explain why we’re seeing a bevy of films sidestepping certain eras and evoking specific genres. In a recent column, I looked at how Serenity was steeped in the world of ‘40s noir and ‘90s neo-noir and this seems to be happening a lot with weird trash cinema. Maybe because there’s little risk for high reward, but movies with lower expectations are jumping into specific film genres with abandon. Such is the case with the Octavia Spencer-starring thriller, Ma.

Ma stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann, a lonely vet tech still suffering the psychological scars from high school. When a group of teens ask her to buy booze for them, Sue Ann sees it as a way to relive her youth. But the desire to rewrite the past soon becomes an obsession.

Tate Taylor: Melodramatic Maestro

Up to this point, most of director Tate Taylor’s works have been adaptations of popular novels (2011’s The Help and 2016’s The Girl on the Train) with one biopic (the 2014 James Brown drama Get On Up). Each film has shown his penchant for emulating directors of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the case of Tate’s adaptations, his blending of melodrama and thriller is reminiscent of the work of directors Delmar Daves and Jean Negulesco.

Jean Neguelsco was a director of “woman’s pictures,” features aimed at women generally in the romance or melodrama genres. Features like Humoresque (1946) and The Best of Everything (1959) can find parallels in Taylor’s work on The Help and The Girl on the Train. Much like The Help, The Best of Everything follows a group of women attempting to navigate life, love, and the (at the time) prescient topic of women entering the workplace. In an era where women were predominantly the ones watching television, these films showed them in positions of power, both in a physical job as well as having autonomy over their bodies and identities.

Negulesco’s features blended melodramatic storytelling involving abortions and premarital sex in a way that was frank and shocking. The late ‘50s saw an uptick in soapy tales like this, coinciding with the rise of television. Watching Taylor’s work on The Girl on a Train, itself a mix of erotic thriller and murder mystery, it’s easy to watch Emily Blunt’s leading lady in the same way as the women in the 1960s filmed adaptation of Peyton Place or even Douglas Sirk’s remake of Imitation of Life (also from 1959), or Emma Stone’s Skeeter in The Help and draw comparisons to The Best of Everything’s Caroline Bender (Hope Lange).

Let’s Talk Hagspolitation (Again!)

But when it comes to Ma specifically, Taylor’s immediate influence is clearly What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich. Aldrich became the forerunner of the “hagsploitation” genre, a wave of films wherein older actresses played frightening, over-the-top villains.

Spencer’s Sue Ann holds more in common with Shelley Winters’ Mrs. Forrest in the 1971 horror feature Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? than Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson. In that film, itself a take on Hansel and Gretel, Mrs. Forrest is perceived as a benevolent wealthy woman who takes a shine to a little orphan girl. Unknown to everyone is that Mrs. Forrest holds the remains of her dead daughter in her attic and wants the orphan to recreate the child she lost. Sue Ann holds dark secrets from her past that heavily influence how she approaches the teens she meets. Through gauzy flashbacks – themselves akin to 1980s horror features –  her treatment of them isn’t 100% motivated by revenge, but a macabre desire to have control over her own past, where instead of being the bullied victim she is cool and popular.

An extended subplot of the movie involves Sue Ann’s own relationship with her daughter, a girl she keeps confined to the house via Munchausen by proxy. Again parallels to Mrs. Forrest pop up, with Sue Ann’s wild determination to keep her child safe and protected from high school bullies manifesting via manipulation, violence, and illness.

Like Baby Jane Hudson, Sue Ann is no longer young and vibrant which is interpreted by the teens as weird and pathetic. Furthermore, Sue Ann’s meme-worthy outbursts are heavily influenced by other “psycho-biddies” including Winters, Davis, and Joan Crawford, blending over-the-top theatrics with serious drama. As Sue Ann becomes more unhinged she tries even harder to keep control in front of other adults, only leading her to deteriorate further.

If Tate Taylor wants to continue going back to the melodramas of the past for inspiration that suits me just fine! His films are rooted deeply in the work of Negulesco, Delmar Daves, Tay Garnett, and others, reminding all of us that the classics remain alive and well in modern day.

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