The camera focuses in on a car parked in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood. The door is open, the vehicle empty. The car radio, tuned into to a local news channel, announces that a respected businessman has just killed his business partners and his estranged wife. A man rushes out of a residence, two young girls in tow, and they all bundle into the car and hit the road. They drive through miles of wintery terrain until the skid off the highway; then they climb out of the vehicle and wander through the wilderness until they find a cabin. The man drags the two kids into the cabin and sets a fire. After emotionally breaking down and sobbing, he removes a pistol from his jacket and approaches his daughter. He tells her to look away. Before he can pull the trigger, however, a gangly monster composed of emaciated limbs and hair grabs him and drags him away screaming. Cue opening credits. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it kinda is. And my description is utterly inadequate to describe the awesomeness of the first ten minutes of Mama. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that promise.
Mama is yet another horror movie that has emanated from the great Guillermo del Toro’s wheelhouse. Based on a short film by the filmmaking duo Andy and Barbara Muschietti, Mama picks up a number of years later, following the discovery of the missing girls. It turns out that the missing children have a surviving uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who desperately wants to find and reconnect with them. When they’re found in an isolated cabin, malnourished and completely feral, he jumps at the opportunity to obtain custody of them.
Of course, there’s a catch…aside from the fact that the girls are un-socialized little animals and they’ve apparently existed under the protection of a malevolent entity for the past half decade. The aunt of the murdered woman also wants custody of the children, and she’s better equipped to take care of them. The girls’ court-appointed therapist cuts a deal with the uncle: in exchange for moving from his chic studio apartment to a bland suburban household, the man will get to retain the custody of his nieces. He agrees enthusiastically. Less enthusiastic is his rocker chick girlfriend (played by the always fantastic Jessica Chastain), but she ultimately comes along for the ride for reasons that are never made clear. Also coming along for the ride is Mama, the spindly-armed forest witch. And you can see where this going.
Mama is another PG-13 horror movie that gets a lot of things right and several other things wrong. If you haven’t seen more than a half dozen horror flicks in your lifetime, then there are pleasures to be had from catching the film in theaters. If you’re familiar with the genre, however, you can see the each scare and each twist of the script coming from a mile away.
The one thing the film really has going for it is the casting of Jessica Chastain in the lead role as Annabel, the utterly disinterested punk rocker. Forsaking her trademark red hair for a darker, Joan Jett look, Chastain plays against the warm, maternal roles that made her famous. And aside from Chastain’s brilliantly aloof performance, the character of Annabel herself is interesting. Most horror films tend to focus on hysterical teenagers or frustrated, paranoid housewives. Annabel is just a character who really wants these children completely out of her life so she can go back to playing music and banging her attractive boyfriend. She has no interest in having kids, she has no interest in the welfare of these two damaged children, and she would like nothing more than to go back to her transient lifestyle. To make a protagonist of a character like Annabel is kind of a bold move for a film in a genre that’s largely content to repeat itself over and over again.
The visual conception of Mama also distinguishes the film from some of the lesser flicks in the genre. Under Guillermo del Toro’s supervision, the creature has changed from a more standard movie monster in the original short film of the same name to a spindly, wild-haired, earth-toned freak. The filmmakers also made the inspired decision to use actor 6’7” Javier Botet to play Mama in certain scenes. Horror aficionados may be familiar with Botet from playing the utterly unsettling monster from the end of the Spanish horror film [Rec]. Casting surprisingly tall, gangly actors as monsters and burying them under mounds of makeup has worked like a charm ever since F.W. Murnau cast Max Schreck in Nosferatu, and it still works here.
What doesn’t work for Mama is the utterly predictable script, which takes all of its cues from every other PG-13 horror movie that’s been released since Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring. We come to learn that Mama is yet another misunderstood, tortured poltergeist. Annabel learns that she’s capable of being an affectionate mother herself. And the two figures end up dueling against each other over the souls of the two girls. It’s all pretty standard, which is a shame because the cast and crew are really above average for this type of genre flick.
Any good will Mama generates in its first hour is utterly wrecked by a preposterous finale in which we get a good long look at a mostly CG monster. Early practical effects utilizing a mostly unseen Javier Botet in costume and make-up work marvelously, but instead of using suggestion to frighten the audience, as the filmmakers of last year’s Sinister did, Andy Muschietti caves and gives us all a good chance to see his monster. It’s underwhelming; just more PG-13, CGI bullshit. CGI can supplement practical effects, but it’ll never displace them. Watching a purely CGI creation will always feel akin to watching a cartoon or a videogame cut scene until the form takes gigantic leap forward.
But the depiction of Mama encapsulates the film itself. Mama is great in small doses—in fact, the flick is based off of a brilliant little short film by Andy and Barbara Muschietti—but the closer you scrutinize it, the less it works. Despite the great cast, sharp filmmaking crew, and above average production values, Mama is just another middling January horror release.