Directed by: Andrés Muschietti.
Written by: Neil Cross and Andrés Muschietti & Barbara Muschietti.
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Annabel), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Lucas / Jeffrey), Megan Charpentier (Victoria), Isabelle Nélisse (Lilly), Daniel Kash (Dr. Dreyfuss), Javier Botet (Mama), Jane Moffat (Jean Podolski / Mama), Morgan McGarry (Young Victoria), David Fox (Burnsie), Dominic Cuzzocrea (Ron).
Good horror movies rely mainly on two things – the audience’s identification with the main character(s) and shock/surprise. Great horror movies are able to do this while deepening the themes of their movies – think of the endings of Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or The Shining (1980) for example, and how although each does throw a final twist at the audience that truly shocks us – it is still completely in line with the rest of the movie, deepening the themes that were already there. Now, it’s unfair to expect every horror movie to be as brilliant as the best films the genre has ever produced, but I do think it’s fair to expect that movies in the genre at least try. The problem with Mama is pretty much from beginning to end, the audience knows what the big secret of the movie is going to be – and we just have to wait for the main character to catch up to us. So while Mama is much better made and acted than your run of the mill horror film, it’s just as brainless.
The story concerns two girls who at the age of 3 and 1 are taken by their father – who has just killed his wife/their mother – on a car trip that ends with them heading off a cliff. Miraculously all three survive, and stumble through the woods, until they find a rundown, seemingly abandoned cabin. Just when it seems like the father is going to finish annihilating his family, something swoops in and takes him. Flash forward five years, and the girl’s uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has never given up hope of finding his nieces alive, and has spent most of his money on men who search everywhere they could have gone (apparently, they never found the car, so have no idea where to look). Miraculously, they find the two girls alive – although after five years in the forest “by themselves” they are almost feral. Lucas brings them home anyway to live with him and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) to be treated by a shrink. The two girls insist that all that time in the woods they were taken care of by “Mama”. But who, or what, is Mama?
The problem with Mama is from the beginning of the film, the screenplay gives us no plausible alternative to what Mama may be. The film tries to convince us that “Mama” is all in the girl’s head – but that makes no sense given what we see happen to the father at the beginning of the film, and the behavior of the girls throughout the film. So, for most of the movie, we are stuck as first the shrink and then Annabel do the same research (essentially the movie tries to surprise us twice with the same information) into what Mama really is. Since everyone in the audience has long since figured it out by the time the realization finally hits Annabel, you are left bored – frustrated that the main character took approximately an hour longer than you did to figure out the truth. Worse still, the ending of the movie is just lame – not scary or surprising in the least.
It should be said that the visual look of the film – which is more important in horror than the story most of the time – is quite good. Director Andrés Muschietti knows how to build atmosphere, and gradually ramp up the suspense – and knows that seeing too much too soon is almost always a mistake. His biggest asset is Jessica Chastain, who adds yet another distinct look to her repertoire – this time rocker chick – and is as good as she can be expected to be given what she has to work with. The look of the film and Chastain’s performance keep the film watchable.
But watchable doesn’t really mean good. Good horror films suck you into their plots no matter how ridiculous they are. They have you gripped from beginning to end. With Mama, I was simply bored because the director and lead actress are saddled with a screenplay that is nowhere near their level.