The Gift 2015 ***

Joel Edgerton’s first film as writer/director is an accomplished psychological thriller that owes some of its dramatic heft to Michael Hanke’s Hidden, but has a deliberately off-kilter momentum of its own. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, who move into a big house in LA. Their domestic bliss is short-lived; a chance meeting with an old friend of Simon Gordo (Edgerton) leads to a few unexpected visits, and leads Simon to the conclusion that Gordo is stalking him. The result is one of the more restrained entries in the Blumhouse canon, and better for it; Edgerton touches on issues about bullying, homosexuality and repression while keeping a tight, believable narrative on track. The ending is a little hokey, but the slow-burn route to the climax is worth taking, with Bateman’s usual suave cool being blown and Edgerton relishing the chance to play a sinister and threatening stranger.

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Ma 2019 ***

maThe latest Blumhouse shocker has a striking casting coup up its sleeve, but not a great deal else to recommend it. The perennially sweet Octavia Spencer has presumably bored herself silly playing kindly, matronly ladies in films like Hidden Figures, or even playing God in The Shack; as executive producer, she’s fashioned a horror role for herself that runs very much contrary to the image she’s cultivated until now. A group of teenagers have nowhere to go in a small town, until local vets assistant they call Ma offers them her basement as a place to hang out. Ma’s gift, complete with booze and snacks, comes at a price; she’s got an ulterior motive, and means nothing but harm. A  remarkable supporting cast has been assembled, including Allison Janney, Luke Evans and Juliette Lewis, but they all take a back seat to Spencer’s Ma. Even when the action gets rather too sadistic for comfort, and there’s some nasty stuff here, Spencer relishes the task of taking her kindly features and seems to enjoy suggesting considerable malice lurking behind that familiar smile.