Director – Andrés Muschietti
Cast – Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Carpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry
Release Year – 2013
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Several years ago I came across a short film from Spanish auteur Andres Muschietti titled Mama, and seeing that it was only about a minute long I gave it a shot and left pleased. Eventually word hit the scene that famed horror director Guillermo del Toro had come across the film and decided to play a producing role to give Andres Muschietti a shot at adapting his short into a full-length feature film. This was both good news and bad news to me. I was glad to hear of another Toro-produced horror piece, but was a bit saddened when I saw that this would not be a Spanish film imported to the US for us to enjoy, but a flick specifically made for the US Market…and you know what that means – cliché horror. Nonetheless I checked the film out and realized that the horror was better than I expected, but in the end the flick was as mediocre and borderline-positive as I had predicted.
For the past five years Lucas has been painstakingly trying to find out the fate of his brother and two nieces after they disappeared without a trace following a domestic ordeal. When the rescuers he spent his last dime on miraculously find the two young girls still alive deep within the woods, Lucas is overjoyed and along with his girlfriend, Annabel, they take on the daunting task of raising the two now-feral children. Many questions are asked, “How did two young children survive five years in the wilderness?”, “Did they have help? Who helped them?”, and soon enough everyone involved with learn the horrific answer to these questions.
Andres Muschietti and two co-writers deliver a screenplay that gets the ball rolling early on, giving us the girls’ disappearance and reappearance sequences within the film’s first 15 minutes. There is enough creepiness in these initial sequences to give the viewer an idea of what to expect for the rest of the film, and I was glad to see the horror not take a backseat to anything else. Aside from the initial horror it is the film’s conflict that gets the ball rolling, with Lucas and Annabel obviously in over their heads due to Lucas’ reluctance to let the girls be raised by their maternal grandmother. He desperately wishes to care for the girls as his own, as any brother close to his kin would, and me manages to enlist the help of the reluctant Annabel who definitely feels she is in a position that she never signed up for (regarding the relationship). Without giving too much away, Annabel is eventually forced to take on a very mother-like role with the young girls, and that is where the true conflict arises from multiple fronts. For one, Annabel does not want to be a mother, to anyone (an early scene clearly indicates that), and secondly, her mother-esque role has inflamed the supernatural force that kept eh girls alive for so many years…the force the girls call “Mama”. When the young girls speak of “Mama” those around them do not think much into and assume that they are speaking of an imaginary mother figure that helped them survive on their own, but they are wrong when ti comes to thinking she is imaginary.
I was unsure how much Mama action we would get in this piece, asking myself “Will it be more atmospheric than scary? Or be like The Grudge with only a handful of scares spaced throughout the film?”, and being very pleased when I realized I was being given more horror than I expected. Those looking to be entertained will be glad to know that Mama comes with lots of scares and constant screentime for the scary mother. The quality of the scares will vary thanks to the many cliché jump scares, but when mama shows herself in a full-frontal fashion she is downright scary and I applauded the writers for making up for their shady story with lots of Mama on the screen.
That is right, I called the story “shady”, and for a number of reasons. First of, there were some character issues that left me concerned and unable to look past them. For one, the usage of Lucas, a title character, was poor and it was very noticeable. He spent the majority of the film uninvolved in what was going on (for reasons I cannot explain without spoiling the film), and when he did appear on screen later in the film he was used in a cliché manner that bled lackluster writing. It is obvious that the writers wanted to shift the focus to Annabel and use her conflict to sell the story, and it does work, but ti came at the cost of another character. I do see this often when writers come up with an idea that eventually writes themselves into a corner, and they usually find a cheap way to cop-out of it and hope that the gerneral public fails to notice it, but I noticed it loud and clear. I also did not like the film’s climax very much, but that is mostly opinion so I’ll just leave it at that. I was glad to see that the remaining characters were used positively, with each one serving their role whether it be conflict, love, or dying at the hands of Mama’s anger.
Muschietti’s direction was good and he mimicked the creepiness he created in his short almost 5 years ago. His atmosphere is solid and he makes good use of camerawork and lighting to keep a constant level of creepy dread prevailing throughout the 100 minute experience. The sets and locations used were excellent in setting the creepy atmosphere, which also came with a positive musical score. Muschietti received good performances from his actors, with the two young girls stealing the show early on (different actors for the young vs. older girls) and never giving anyone else a chance to overshadow them. Of course, the biggest selling point in the film is Muschietti’s execution of the most important character, Mama. The look of Mama was fantastic – creepy, decayed, contorted, and most importantly…very skinny. Some may think I am joking about that bu tI am not – it was her skinniness that elevated her to a high creep level. I enjoyed her mannerisms and the little but effective dialogue she spewed, but nothing tops her very effective eyes. Most of Mama’s scenes come with her delivered via CGI effect, but the CGI was bearable at first and eventually erupted into believable FX that had most of the audience squirming in their seats. We do get some live-action FX for her, but those scenes mostly consisted of her long creepy fingers during closeup sequences. There is little-to-no gore in the film, but Muschietti’s horror was so good that I did not even notice that until right now, as I am writing, over a day later.
Overall, Mama is an OK horror experience so long as you go into it expecting entertainment. There is plenty of horror provided, although the quality of each scare will vary, and Muschietti provides a visually appealing experience for the viewer. The story comes with several issues that ultimately keep it from being a solid experience, but as I said, if you go for the horror you may find this worth your time.