Written by: Andrés Muschietti, Neil Cross, and Barbara Muschietti
Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Megan Charpentier
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Despite only serving as the film’s executive producer, Guillermo del Toro’s name is all over Mama; his fingerprints are subtly there too, though. Not that he’s cornered the market on creepy kids and ghosts or anything, but this is sort of his deal. However, his touch is perhaps just a little too subtle; whereas his films mine childhood trauma and the various monsters under the bed to actually say something resonant and complex, Mama is more content to be a standard-issue creepshow that feels like the spiritual successor to the early-aughts rash ghost movies.
Plus, as the title suggests, this one isn’t concerned with the kids as much as it is motherhood. The film opens in the midst of the economic recession, and a radio report conveniently announces to us that a lot of people have been losing their shit as a result. One of these people is a Virginia man who decides to murder his business partners and wife before abducting his two kids. After careening off an icy road, the trio stumbles upon a cabin in the woods, which is already inhabited by some mysterious force; if you bet on “vengeful maternal ghost” on the Cabin in the Woods whiteboard, then you’ll be pretty pleased to discover that’s exactly what’s inside. Anyway, the blurry, spectral thing kills the father just as he’s preparing to finish the job by butchering his kids, thus saving the girls and dooming them a feral existence for five years.
Luckily for Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a much better guy and refused to give up looking for them during all that time. When his hired trackers finally discover the two girls, he and his wife, Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), gain custody and unwittingly invite the spirit that’s raised them into their home. The move also unleashes a movie that operates like clockwork, as you can pretty much set your watch to the story beats and scares. That said, it’s a decently wound clock for the most part; director Andres Muschietti makes a pretty solid debut that lets him show off his ghost story chops, mostly because there’s no shortage of opportunity here. Not only do you have two impossibly weird kids creeping about, but you’ve also got the largely-unseen Mama stirring up trouble.
The setup here is familiar, but it’s sometimes remarkable, as Muschietti crafts some low-key, creepy sequences that are right up there with similar scenes in Paranormal Activity and Insidious. Like those films, most of the early scares rely more on subtlety and misdirection, and it’s a blast watching some of the more effective ones play out. Even better, actual drama and tension underscore the proceedings, as Annabelle is a bit reluctant to take on a motherly role (she’s actually introduced celebrating a negative pregnancy test). On top of that, she and Luke are locked in a custody battle with the girls’ aunt (Jane Moffat) to provide even more tension and accentuate the maternal threads attempting to hold Mama together. As the title character’s tragic backstory is uncovered, the notion of motherly love gets twisted into something ugly and horrifying. Annabelle’s discovery of her more natural maternal instinct provides the counterbalancing through-line that would allow Mama to be cool exploration of contrasts if it truly wanted to be.
It doesn’t though, as things begin to unravel towards the end, when the film relents to becoming an overly loud, obvious horror movie that discards subtlety for stingers and shocks. That this happens in tandem with Mama’s full reveal isn’t coincidental; after spending much of the film relegated to cursory glimpses in the background, she comes roaring forth to devour the film’s final act. Such an approach is technically correct, of course—at some point, you typically have to show the monster; however, Mama could have used some restraint and maybe a makeover. I’m not usually one to bag on CGI out of hand, but the effect and design here are marred by a cartoonish appearance that undercuts a lot of the scares (there’s one where Mama submerges under the floor, leaving only her hair to creep along like Cousin It). The general design is kind of inspired, as Mama resembles a stiff corpse more than a traditional ghost—think the victims in The Ring, only it’s realized with a poor effect that makes it a little too silly to be effective.
As such, Mama joins a populous crowd of movies that fail to deliver on a promising setup. There’s still a lot to like, such as Chastain’s performance; given her recent surge in popularity, you might expect that Mama is a long-delayed film that’s escaped to capitalize, but she actually signed on to this after she’d worked with Terence Malick. She doesn’t just get to let her hair down in this role—she chops it up and dyes it black in a gothed-out role as a thirtysomething that’s still clinging to her punk sensibilities. You don’t get the sense that she’s just slumming it in a horror movie, which is always nice. The other notable performance comes from Nelisse as Lilly, the more disturbed of the two girls (since she was only a baby when abandoned) who skulks around and sufficiently creeps everyone out just by looking at them. She also destroys the notion that it’s always cute when kids play around in boxes. If Mama were just a “creepy kid” movie, it’d get by on her performance alone—she’s really feral and inhuman, and not at all like the half-comatose possessed kids that often show up in horror movies.
As a collection of scenes, Mama often works quite well; in addition to the nicely done scare scenes, there are a few flashbacks (to fill in the backstory blanks) that are dynamo sequences, and the movie is often visually striking with its bold sense of style. The typical del Toro flourishes show up in the form of a “once upon a time” opening, plus the dialogue even cribs a little bit from The Devil’s Backbone. Mama often feels like diet del Toro much in the same way Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark did; there’s little doubt that Muschietti has the tools, and it’s easy to see why this material appeals to del Toro, but it just kind of reminds you that the latter already did this much better in Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Of course, that’s kind of unfair considering those are masterpieces; it’s perhaps more apt to compare Mama to the films is most shares DNA with: The Ring, The Boogeyman, Darkness Falls, and They. Such a heritage probably doesn’t inspire much confidence (save for The Ring), but Mama feels like most those films done much better. It's still not done completely right, mind you, but just right enough. Rent it!
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