I initially thought Mama was a much better than it actually is… When I was walking out of the theater I was sort of beaming. I love watching a horror movie that actually creeps me out a little bit. But a couple of days have passed, and I slowly started to realize that Mama wasn’t a horror revelation of any kind, it was merely just better than most of the terrible horror movies I’m used to seeing.
To put it quite bluntly, Mama is not a good movie. While it delivers on its creepy premise in a few scenes; as a respectable horror movie it falls short in many, many aspects. While this film helps get us a little bit more past the (mostly awful) found footage horror genre, it does so by simultaneously taking us back to the terrible, twitchy, hair obsessed Japanese horror genre. The ghost gargles and moans, and every slow movement involves a bone crunching sound. Things bend in half backwards, and impossibly disjointed arms are a key feature of the antagonistic specter. At one point we are even exposed to the ghost moving around simply as a wad of hair on the ground. A moving wig in which a face emerges and it’s clouded by thick black hair. All of the sudden I feel like I’m watching The Ring again and I want to fall asleep. Also, it was unbearably bad CGI. Embarrassing CGI. Dial it back a little, guys.
And the theatrics! Why do ghosts always have to have theatrics?! At one point, the leading lady Annabel (played by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain [Zero Dark Thirty]) is standing in front of an open doorway, and we see Mama floating around behind her in the other room. We get a loud music cue and the ghost bursts up behind her and Mama’s face appears for a second right behind her head. But Annabel doesn’t even notice… Other than for a cheap scare, the scene had NO purpose. I mean what was the thought process of Mama to do that action? “Ooooo, there’s Annabel…! I’m gonna sneak up behind her and NOT scare her, then disappear…! That’ll show… uhh… no one… uhhhh… DOING IT ANYWAY!” Considering that in other scenes, Mama physically assaults (and sometimes murders) people without much thought, the fact that she does these pointless ghost theatrics makes absolutely no sense. It’s quite apparent that she hates Annabel for trying to take care of her creepy children, so instead of doing some stupid jump scare that essentially didn’t scare anyone in the universe of the film, why not just murder Annabel right then and there? She didn’t seem to hesitate when she shoved Annabel’s boyfriend down a flight of stairs (it happens early in the film, it’s not really a spoiler). Also, why is Mama made of moths? Did anyone pick that up? I don’t remember that being explained.
And then there are the flat-out dumb moments. Like the psychiatrist sub plot that is essential for the film to work the way it does, but gets wrapped up in the laziest way possible. Basically, he tries to go and figure out the secret of Mama, ALONE AND WITHOUT A GAMEPLAN, also AT NIGHT, and they wrap up his story rather quickly and unceremoniously. “Oh, well I guess we won’t be seeing any more of him.” But what did he expect to have happen? Was he hoping to have a rational conversation with the murderous ghost? He didn’t even let anyone know where he was going beforehand. Just lazy, lazy writing. The film needed him for the beginning to work, and when the plot didn’t need him anymore they wrote him out in the dumbest way possible.
I know I’ve been rattling off terrible aspects of the film, but there were other things I really enjoyed. The feral children angle was a great one. I almost would have rather just watched a movie about these two weirdo kids, without any ghosts. The creepiest scene in the whole thing was when Annabel gets up in the middle of the night and looks down a shadowy hallway, and peeking around the corner is an eerie silhouette of the younger girl. Just staring at her. Then the little girl scampers a little closer to the edge of the shadow, and just keeps staring at Annabel. Then scuttles away without a word. That was the whole scene, and it was frightening, and it didn’t involve the ghost in any way. Probably because it’s grounded in the reality that, yes, there are just some creepy little kids out there. So I guess my point is: the weird little feral children were scary enough to be their own horror movie, sans ghost. It was probably this concept alone that even made me consider for a minute that Mama was actually a good movie. Do anything different in the horror genre, and you’ll at least *appear* ahead of the pack.
The acting was pretty good from the little girls, but not really from anyone else. Jessica Chastain, riding all the awards buzz she can get, was rather flat in this one. I get that she was supposed to be this “super cool bass player in a punk band who doesn’t care about nuthin’ (litters garbage, leaves toilet seat up)” but not until the very end did she even show any emotion. There’s a bathroom scene in the 2nd or 3rd act when she is talking to the older girl about Mama, and honestly, the 9-year-old girl trounced her in acting ability. The little girl was trembling and looked legitimately frightened, while Chastain delivered her lines with an impeccable wooden quality, “Victor-ia. Who. Is. Mama.? What. Are you. Looking at…?” Maybe it’s a case of reading her lackluster lines the best she could, but it didn’t sound very good. I just read on Wikipedia that the film was shot in 2011 and was supposed to be released in the middle of last year, but got pushed back to a dreaded January release (it doesn’t say why). I’m sure Chastain would have liked it better if Mama came out BEFORE Zero Dark Thirty, but whatcha gonna do? I doubt it will have any effect on her career in any way. Mama isn’t a movie that lingers in your head for very long. Also, in terms of actors… Hey look! It’s Jaime Lannister!
So I didn’t hate Mama, but I also didn’t consider it a great achievement in horror. Or even a step forward. Guillermo del Toro produced it (but didn’t direct it), and his hand in the film is obvious, but it’s also disappointing that he didn’t just direct it and possibly make it better. I read that he fought for the ending, which I commend him for, because it didn’t take the easy way out. It also didn’t end with a jump scare of the ghost lunging toward the camera for no apparent reason like 90% of most modern horror films do. So that was a welcome change. If you go see every horror movie that comes out, you’ll probably enjoy Mama more than most of the others, but only because of the great set-up. I was very intrigued by a lot of it, but in the end it’s basically just another Japanese horror movie ripoff. And I thought we finished ripping those movies off in 2006.
6 out of 10