‘Party at Ma’s’ Offers a House Party with a Dark Secret (Review)

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Photo: Juliet Bennett Rylah

Upcoming horror film Ma (Blumhouse, Universal) stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann, a loner in a small, Midwestern town who reluctantly agrees to buy a group of high school students booze. She also invites them to drink that booze in her basement, so long as they don’t disturb her upstairs. Now, this is a classic hallmark of the Cool Moms we all knew in high school. Cool Moms figured that teenage drinking was inevitable, so they might as well do it somewhere safe and supervised. But something is off about Sue Ann, who requests they call her ‘Ma.’ As she becomes more and more involved in the teens’ lives, it becomes readily apparent that maybe Sue Ann is, well, very deranged.

In anticipation of the films’ May 31 release date, the studios invited a group of influencers, actors, and press to “party at Ma’s” — in this case, a large home in Mid-City—for one night only. Guests milled about the lawn, where a food truck served late-night eats and open bars offered beer and cocktails. Inside, guests danced to a steady drip of 90s, early-aughts, and modern pop and hip-hop. It truly felt like the kind of house party you might have attended in high school or college, complete with the guy who’d duct taped beer cans to his hands.

Throughout the house and its grounds, there were several Instagram-friendly tableaus for photos, some of which you might catch in the film’s trailer. This included a sofa with two, unfortunate teens chained to it and a big, white van (our teen victims are seen driving it in the trailer) that gushed fog whenever the doors were opened. What party could be complete with a van to hotbox in?

Intermixed with the guests were actors from JFI Productions (Creep LA, The Willows) who represented the various Ohio teens captivated by Ma’s laissez-faire attitudes on underage boozing. We got our palms read by the class’ resident goth girl (Misha Reeves), caught snippets of a blooming love triangle, and futilely attempted to help a nervous mother (Deirdre Lyons) find her missing daughter. We were delighted by a police officer (Galen Howard) who was more interested in dancing with the partiers than writing them MIPs. And, we also learned that we were all just two weeks shy of graduation, so congratulations to us!

If the house party element of the experience was where it all ended, then this would have been a fine party for anyone wanting to relive those glory days while pursuing an unraveling mystery.

But the centerpiece of the experience was a short haunted house for a handful of people at a time and here’s where things got a little messy. Each group was led to Mom’s basement by a different reveler; ours was played by the always-excellent Dasha Kittredge. She was looking for Ma’s secret stash, but what we found was one of her friends locked in a cage. (This turned out to the aforementioned nervous mother’s missing child.) On the hunt for the rest of our guide’s friends, we made our way upstairs. There, we encountered a series of tortured teens including a guy in a bed who looked like he may have endured a grievous groin injury and a man writhing in a bathtub. Throughout the winding corridors, we were stalked by a man in a creepy mask. (It looked very much like the one that possessed guests at Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s welcome-back-to-Sunnydale party, so I’m assuming it was bad news.) Luckily, Dasha managed to get us out of there before any true tragedy could befall us.

As fun as this little Springtime haunt was, the throughput suffered. It’s not clear if there was an organized set of time slots that became overwhelmed by the party’s guest list or not. It seemed as though there were two lines: one for people who’d been waiting, and a fast-pass experience for influencers and people involved with the movie. That’s to be expected at an event like Halloween Horror Nights where you know you’ll be waiting in line for a while if you don’t splurge on a FastPass, but little was done to convey that’s what was happening. Possibly because we were literally inside of a loud house party.

But stuff like that can throw off the immersion and it definitely did for me. At one point, my group was told to wait in a particular spot while three groups went ahead of us. I’m fine waiting in line, don’t get me wrong, but what should have been about a 20 to 30-minute wait turned into around two hours. We were unsure if moving from that spot meant forfeiting our place in whatever confusing logic determined which group was next. We were also assured so frequently that our time was coming that we just… never moved. This turned out to be a mistake, as we missed a lot of the character interactions going on throughout the rest of the party.

Far be it from me to criticize a movie studio embracing immersive theatre to get fans excited about an upcoming flick. The Neibolt House experience in Hollywood for IT was great! The escape-room-meets-scavenger-hunt game for Alita: Battle Angel was a truly fun way to immerse guests in Alita’s dystopian world and thus a perfect complement to a high-concept sci-fi film! But it is, in a way, my duty to provide a critique of these experiences and so I can’t gloss over the throughput issues.

If ‘Party at Ma’s’ sole goal was to make me interested in seeing the movie, it succeeded. I now really want to see Octavia Spencer play a creepy villain. But a little more organization would have definitely made for a better experience overall. This is, of course, no fault of JFI, but since they do such good work, it’d be better if the most people possible had the chance to see it. While I realize assigning people time slots might have broken the immersion for some, it could perhaps have been folded in by having a character tell groups to meet them at a particular place and time to vape tequila or snort weed or whatever it is the high school kids do these days. And that would have meant less standing around or in line and more getting to the bottom of Ma’s house of mayhem and mystery.

You can see Ma yourself in theaters on May 31, and you can continue to catch JFI Productions’ various shows in the Los Angeles area.

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