The trailer for upcoming thriller Ma, via Blumhouse and Universal Pictures, was released recently. Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, and Luke Evans, the choices of music in this trailer present both a classic fake-out and a classic motif-based musical theme that speaks to the film’s originality. The concept here is that Sue Ann (Spencer, as “Ma”) is a hermit resident of Ohio who is asked to buy some alcohol for a new teenager in town, and her friendliness gradually devolves into terrorizing control.
For the first 20 seconds or so, the jangly guitar of Meghan Trainor’s “No Excuses” suggests a stop-and-go editing approach in line with many comedic trailers, with a parade of one-liners serving as exposition.
Expectations are completely subverted at the 32 second mark, however, when the tone changes entirely. An instrumentally diverse track imbues a suspenseful aura, grounded by a melody the borrows from the harmonic minor and chromatic scales (irregular, unexpected notes).
At 1:26 we get the first jump scare for the trailer along with the title cards, promoting foremost that the producer was also responsible for Happy Death Day (2017; 72% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing; $55M worldwide box office). This makes sense if you’ve been the latter—if Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a horror-comedy leaning on the side of comedy, Happy Death Day (and, presumably, Ma) can be defined as a more of a black comedy / slasher film.
This aforementioned melodic motif is emphasized for the remainder of the trailer. It’s worth spelling out: it’s C B G# A / F E D# E, in the key of A minor, in slow, menacing whole notes (taking the duration of each measure). It seems like the studio is intent on creating an association between this potential franchise and the melodic motif, which is frustratingly rare in a world where the cover song and/or rearrangement reign supreme in the trailer music industry.
The motif itself is somewhat reminiscent of themes such as that from The X-Files, with its simple, ethereal melodic contour and high register. In terms of its chromaticism, it is somewhat like the beginning of the theme for The Twilight Zone. In addition, producer Jason Blum’s Halloween series is well known for its own musical theme by John Carpenter, which we have covered elsewhere on the blog. While the comparison with the Halloween theme isn’t as clear, there is a similarity in terms of their similarly menacing persistence and repetitive structures.
Ma has its own discernible theme, befitting the genre—which could be a remarkable achievement in itself if it catches on as a musical shorthand for this potential new horror franchise.
Ma arrives in theatres May 31st.
— Curtis Perry