Mama (2013)

Mama is at times fantastic and at others deeply flawed. It is tonally wonky, sometimes appearing as a gothic fairytale and J-horror rip-off but also as a traditional American ghost story, with evil aunts and agenda-riddled doctors thrown in for good measure. It is creepy but never terrifying and the overuse of crap CGI is infuriating.

Simply put, Mama is a decent idea poorly constructed, with some excellent moments and interesting characters interjected with a messy plot and some cheap scares. Watchable but forgettable… apart from the ending, which is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Some of you may know about the success story of Andrés Muschietti. Having created a short film called Mama in 2008, he was surprised when a certain Guillermo Del Toro contacted him, declaring himself a fan and suggesting – maybe – that Mama could make a decent feature film.

Dream. Come. True.

And now we have it. In feature form.

So what is Mama about? After our recent stock market crash, businessman Jeffery (Games of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has a psychotic break, murdering his business partners and his estranged wife before kidnapping his two daughters. After a snow-bound car accident leaves the trio stranded in the forest, they stumble upon an old cabin, which seems abandoned… but actually holds a dark and malevolent secret.

Despite an epic man-hunt we find ourselves five years later and with no sign of the trio’s whereabouts. Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the only person still looking for them, but his funds are running dry. Then – by a stroke of urinating luck – the girls are found! Feral, aggressive and distrusting, they’re immediately given to doctors to help re-integrate them with society.

The girls are slowly rehabilitated, revealing some troubling mental issues – apparently they believe they were raised by a woman, possibly invisible, called ‘Mama’.  Quick to dismiss this as deluded, their physician Dr. Dreyfuss (played by Daniel Kash, a cut price Tony Shaloub) decides they need a loving family to look after them.

The responsibility of new-found parenthood lands on Uncle Lucas and his rock chick girlfriend (played by Jessica “Zero-Dark-Thirty” Chastain), who are literally given a house to live in by the doctor, much to the annoyance of custody-hungry Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat).

But Mama is real. And evil. And the ghost of a lunatic. And soon the couple find themselves haunted and under attack from this unstoppable malevolent force…

Mama has an interesting conceit – abandoned children raised by psychotic ghost who follows them into a suburban home – and could’ve been fantastic. Unfortunately it never finds its feet, slipping and sliding from scene to scene without any real purpose.

There are the occasional pieces of narration from the doctor, an exposition spewing archives librarian, an aunt who you could easily cut from the entire film, a main character who ends up in a coma for half the film and a ghost whose actions seem entirely driven by plot…

Guillermo Del Toro is renowned for his use of practical effects over CGI – watch the Hellboy 2 extra features and be amazed at how many creatures they created, it’s awe-inspiring – so it’s a shame that something with his name splattered all over it (as ‘presented by’ and ‘executive producer’) relies so heavily on CGI when it could’ve easily been done (and done better) by a ‘man in a suit’.

For anyone who’s seen low-budget horror flick Splinter (and you should), you’ll know how effective the use of an acrobat in a monster suit can be, but the creators of Mama have opted for a ridiculous-faced CGI floaty witch, when it could’ve been a decent mix of practical and CG effects. I won’t harp on about this much more, as I’ve dedicated two paragraphs to it, but it really dampened my enjoyment of the film. Awful and noticeable CGI in horror is unnecessary and – frankly – damaging to the genre.

My main quibble, however, is perhaps our ‘heroes’. Often the research and realization section of any good ghost-horror movie is left to our protagonists, desperately trying to find a solution to their problems, but in Mama it’s given to a shady doctor, whose intentions are baffling and utterly self-serving.

This leaves the main characters with very little to do, except look scared, have arguments with Aunt Jean and occasionally have fantastically convenient – and historically accurate! – dreams.

Newcomers to the horror genre might be able to forgive the plethora of tired clichés on display here, modern and old, from the exposition spewing old woman to the use of a flashbulb camera to create some wild scares, but horror fanatics will roll their eyes at the tiredness of the scares on display here.

There are also a couple of really dumb moments (like the second time someone enters the woods in the light and reaches the cabin in darkness! Bad planning!) and also some needless rule-breaking (the ghost of a woman who died in 1887 somehow using a computer to type her name over and over again? Really?!).

Luckily the actual characters feel original, interesting and compelling, which makes it easier watching than most bland horror-film protagonists. The dialogue is also very decent and well delivered, if a little ham-fisted when it comes to narration and exposition.

Perhaps the real travesty is that Mama is not very scary. There are the occasional jump moments but this lacks the tension-grating finesse of other Del Toro presented work, like Julia’s Eyes and The Orphanage. This could’ve been terrifying.

Perhaps I have seen way too many horror films. It was the No. 1 US Box Office Smash Hit, which is excellent news for Horror, but for fans of the genre this might just be another horror film. Hints of Del Toro, J-Horror, The Last Exorcism and dozens of other films make it feel familial and muddled. A good idea squandered.

Overall Mama is a reasonable horror movie that smacks of lost potential. The overuse of CGI, protagonist inactivity and some bizarre tonal shifts leaves this floundering. An enjoyable but flawed piece of Box Office gold.

Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

3 Comments on “Mama”

  1. What a shame. Sad to hear that it’s more Who’s Afraid Of The Dark than The Orphanage, especially when it comes to the CGI :(

  2. Eric Ebel says:

    Since you lay so much stress on it, I have to point out that Mama was indeed a man in a suit — Javier Botet, a tall Spanish contortionist who can actually do things like running while bent over backward. (Only the hair was CGI.) You can google pics of him in make-up, including a few of him getting frisky with Jessica Chastain.

    • Scullion says:

      Wow… colour me surprised. Thanks for pointing this out!

      Seen images of Javier Botet and he looks amazing – what a fantastic physical performer. Unfortunately the over-reliance of CGI for the floaty hair, facial stretching and frenetic movements means you literally can’t tell a person is acting underneath it.

      In the review above I said “it could’ve been a decent mix of practical and CG effects” and I stand by this; the majority of audience members I talked to thought the ‘witch’ was CGI, so it’s a shame the overuse of computer generated effects eclipsed what was an excellent physical performance.

      Was the floaty hair, clothes and stretched-face antics necessary? Personally I don’t think so.

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