Director: Andres Muschietti
Writer: Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, Neil Cross
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse
Website: Mama Official Site
As evident by the triumphant box office take its opening weekend, Mama was perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated genre films of this early season. This major release horror film – based on a highly regarded short and directed by that work’s original creator – was poised to be the darling of the horror world with crossover appeal for a wider audience. Beloved filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s name attached as producer should have been a guarantee the film would hit it out-of-the-park with atmosphere and imagination. Clearly it was a lot of hype for a film to live up. Grounded expectations, however, wasn’t enough to prepare for the utter disappointment of seeing great potential thwarted by the cliche-ridden nonsense that is Mama.
On paper, Mama is a brilliant concept: Two very young girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are taken by their desperately suicidal father to a remote cabin in the woods, and consequently never found. Five years later, they are discovered living like wild animals in the woods. They are taken in by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his markedly unprepared girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), into special housing designed for observation by appointed psychologist Dr. Dreyfus (Daniel Kash). Examinations of the girls reveal that someone they call “mama” was responsible for their survival in the cabin all those years. Is mama real, or a manifestation of their trauma? Lucas and Annabel, both broke and struggling artists, aren’t equipped to handle the heavy baggage carried by the girls, and soon a haunting presence makes itself known in the household.
Why so much ire for this film, you ask? Mama is a disappointment because rather than focus on the affecting psychological fears associated with a child’s trauma, it descends into cliche J-horror trappings. It’s a total missed opportunity to explore the resiliency of children in a manner that could be both chilling and thought-provoking. Instead, the film leans heavily on a gross overabundance of CG effects, as well as standard tropes of long black-haired ghost movies. The special effects choices – for some reason requiring that Mama make all sorts of corny contortions and aerial movements – all but completely remove any chance this film had of being scary. It belies the otherwise jarring scenes of the children bounding around the house – primal and animal-like – many of which are the film’s only effective moments.
The problems with Mama aren’t the performances. The children in particular are arresting, Charpentier and Nelisse command every ounce of their screen time. Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter), normally magnificent, does her best with the ill-conceived caricature that is her punk rock bassist character Annabel. Coster-Waldau is fine as the distraught uncle, but finds himself removed from the equation as the film shifts to the relationship dynamics of the three female protagonists. It’s these moments where Muschietti fails to capitalize on what could have been a strong emotional core, but instead turns to unconvincing scenes of quickly edited ghosts, moving hair, black mold straight out of last year’s terrible film The Apparition, and a predictable climax that requires our heroes to solve a mystery.
There are many other severe shortcomings that plague the film. One of my pet peeves is the reliance on a music score to manipulate the audience. There is barely a quiet moment in this film, even though the presentation opens itself up to so many wonderful opportunities to create soft lingering dread. There isn’t a single moment that isn’t queued for the viewer to let him or her know when to be scared. The same can be said for multiple sequences in which characters arrive alone at the secluded cabin in the middle of the night with barely a flashlight to light their way. This type of pandering is an insult to filmgoers, and the type of questionable decision-making that dragged this film to the ground. These hackneyed components are excusable in by-the-numbers Hollywood garbage, but not an ambitious film like Mama.
I suspect someone should have fought harder for the integrity of Muschietti’s film. It reeks of a sensitive and talented filmmaker having been bullied by committee. There are many instances where one can see an amazing film, but bulldozed by terrible creative choices, and mired by chuckle worthy effects. The biggest crime is that this film could have served as the perfect gateway horror film for people who’d normally shy away from the genre. Instead, they’re shoveled this stinking heap of mediocrity.