Horror should be frightening, not touchy feely. There shouldn’t be a last minute attempt to pull at one’s heartstrings when all you’ve been doing for the previous running time is trying to make said organ seize. As he’s done now with the far superior The Orphanage, and the throwback/throwaway homage to the ABC Movie of the Week, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, famed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has lent his Executive Producer credit to a project with a lot of promise but very little payoff. Mama may not be the worst fright flick of the upcoming film year (there are enough candidates for that dishonor in the production pipeline), but it might be the biggest wasted opportunity. Director Andres Muschietti has taken his celebrated short and expanded it out over 100 unnecessary minutes. The result screams for editing instead of eliciting shrieks from the audience.
The biggest problem here is the set up. Little Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her infant sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) are the victims of a dad (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) desperate to distance himself from a series of grizzly crimes committed… in response to the economic downturn of 2008? His plan to kill his kids is thwarted, however, when a mysterious figure suddenly appears and stops him. Fast forward five years and Lucas (Coster-Waldua, again) is trying to locate his brother’s long lost children. When found, they are feral and living like animals out in the woods. They also keep referencing someone named “Mama” who may or may not be real, and may or may not have protected them all this time.
Naturally, the discovery of some accidental offspring doesn’t sit well with Jeffrey’s Goth gal pal, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, slumming). She doesn’t want kids, let alone the psychological disturbed victims of some specious supernatural mumbo jumbo. Yet the chance to live in a huge house, free of charge, changes everyone’s mind. Lucas wins custody and with the help of a conniving psychologist (Daniel Kash), he allows the girls to become part of some grand experiment in the home. Naturally, the doc discovers the truth about “Mama”, and suddenly people are falling down stairs, seeing strange shapes in the middle of the night, and experiencing dreams about dead babies, drowning, and derivative plot points.
Mama is a mess. At times, it can’t be scary enough. The title figure, a misshapen effigy which looks like a meth-head supermodel gone to complete seed is an original, if oft mocked, monster. She’s a nightmare in gray, a spirit soaked in the sins she’s committed in the name of maternity. It’s refreshing that Mama doesn’t dismiss her as some figment of the girls’ imagination – or worse, a specter conjured up out of some pointless scientific sturm und drang. Vindictive, protective, and capable of craven dread, she’s the best thing about this movie. She’s also its inevitable undoing, a plot point that requires a few SPOILERS in order to fully flesh out and determined. Many of these narrative strands will seem obvious, but they do lead to an ending which truly destroys everything the film was focused on for the previous 90 minutes.
First off, we know Mama doesn’t like men. She kills the kids’ Daddy with neck snapping efficiency. So when Lucas threatens her peace, what does she do? Does she do away with him as well? Um… no. As a matter of fact, she has at least three chances to off him, and all he ever ends up with is a series of lacerations and a brief trip to the hospital for an extended coma. Similarly, Dr. Dreyfuss is another gender threat who really gets too close to Mama early on. Yet she waits until a last act confrontation to finally…well, you know. There’s a lot of this in the movie. One moment, people are traveling a mere nine miles out of town to a revelatory destination. Yet when they make their way to the cabin where the girls were found, time suddenly shifts into nuclear fast forward. It’s dark almost immediately, the better to establish an atmosphere of terror, one suspects.
Much of this material is unnecessary. The psychiatrist clearly got his PhD in exposition, his only role to fill in the blanks the otherwise evocative storytelling hopes to avoid. Chastain plays in a band. Is that really important to her character? Does picking up a bass and banging out a few notes, Sid Vicious style, really create a more compelling and invested individual? There is no need for the raccoon-eyed evocation of pallid punk posturing. Chastain is capable of playing anti-child without the rock grrrl goofiness. Add in a miserable Aunt who wants the girls for herself (without explanation, of course) and a records keeper who plays the necessary doom and gloom card during the backstory investigation and you’ve got all the scary movie claptrappings.
But Mama can’t just die with dignified dumbness. No, it has to show speckles of promise, scenes and sequences which remind us that good horror can literally get under your skin. The way in which young actors Charpentier and Nelisse play primordial is amazing. There are times when their littlest actions unnerve you. Muschietti handles their histrionics well, never once going completely overboard into backwards backwoods scenery chewing. Similarly, Mama’s introduction and involvement is done with cleverness and smarts. She doesn’t overstay her welcome, that is, until the very end, where Del Toro’s obvious affection for fairytales and misplaced pathos takes over. Instead of going out with a wail, Mama must fizzle with a whimper. The last few minutes are laughable in their desire to direct you toward tears, not fears.
Insidious showed that context and the supernatural could easily go hand in hand. You don’t have to give up on caring about the characters in order to have you spine shivered. Mama makes the mistake of believing in its love and caring core, trying to get us to sympathize with a weird, wicked witch of a dead woman. Everything about the ghostly gal is evocative and effective. The rest of the movie mucks up the macabre… sometimes, significantly.