Mama (Spain/Canada, 2013)

January 19, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mama Poster

Mama follows an unfortunate recent pattern that has emerged in low-budget horror films, especially those with PG-13 ratings. It starts out strongly, using evocative visuals and an unsettling backstory to establish a creepy tableau, but it proves unable to sustain those strengths all the way to the finish line. Narrative weakness and bad horror tropes get in the way and Mama's ending disappoints. Executive produced by Guillermo del Toro and helmed by first-time feature director Andres Muschietti (based on his 2008 short), Mama starts out fresh and intriguing but gradually devolves into a "more of the same" ghost story with no real twists or surprises to keep things interesting.

The prologue is forceful and drips with promise. A man, having shot two co-workers and his ex-wife, kidnaps his two young daughters (ages one and three), and flees with them to an unknown destination. He loses control of his car when driving too fast on a snowy road. After the crash, he wanders with the kids through the woods until they come to a dilapidated cabin - the clich├ęd haunted house in the middle of nowhere. Once inside, as he prepares a double murder-suicide, something emerges from the dark to snatch him away. The girls are left by themselves with only this creature as their companion.

After a break for the opening credits, the story picks up five years later. The girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), now eight and six, have been discovered living on their own in the cabin. Feral, distrusting of people, and with a disturbing tendency to scuttle spider-like on all fours, they are brought to an institute where they are studied by a psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), until being released into the custody of their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones), and his goth rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Annabel isn't the mothering type and suddenly having two children underfoot isn't her idea of the perfect life. To make matters worse, the girls don't come on their own - they bring with them "Mama," their "friend" from the cabin. It doesn't take long before Annabel, left alone with the children after Lucas is hospitalized following a mysterious tumble down the stairs, recognizes that something is very wrong.

The movie boasts a strong emotional component in the relationship that develops between Annabel, the reluctant step-parent, and the girls. It's reminiscent of how James Cameron used the Ripley/Newt interaction in Aliens - a deeply human subplot that seeks to enrich a traditional genre entry. This is where the importance of casting a multifaceted actress like Jessica Chastain comes into play. She makes Annabel real and, because we accept the character, the relationship, no matter how improbable, feels genuine. The more the viewer cares about the bond between Annabel and Victoria (and, to a lesser degree, Annabel and Lilly), the easier it is to overlook obvious weaknesses in other aspects of the production.

As is mandatory for PG-13 horror movies, there are plenty of "boo!" moments. There's also a unique and unnerving shot that may define how we remember this film. With the camera placed at one end of an upstairs hall, we are provided with a deep focus image that juxtaposes the supernatural with the mundane. This is the kind of stand-out scene that can get a filmmaker noticed. For much of Mama, Muschietti teases us with oblique views of the title creature, wisely electing to enhance suspense by avoiding a full "reveal." Unfortunately, late in the film, extended views of the apparition dispel the illusion: Mama is an unremarkable ghoul, a too-obvious special effect that is poorly served by close-ups and unobscured shots.

Pacing is an issue. Mama unspools slowly, allowing viewers to soak up the atmosphere, but there's too little story to fill 100-odd minutes. The movie often seems to be repeating itself and, during stretches when not much is happening beyond oversized moths crawling out of walls, Mama relies on those tried-but-true jump scares to keep attentions from wandering. Complexities and intriguing subplots introduced in the early-going are either dropped or abruptly concluded and characters start doing "stupid horror things" that we don't expect in films that seek to be labeled as "smart" or "fresh." Why would someone time their arrival at a haunted house after dark?

The final fifteen minutes represent Mama at its weakest - not a good thing for any movie, but too often the case with horror films. Paradoxically, the climax feels both rushed and sluggish. Nearly devoid of tension, it unspools in a protracted and unsatisfying fashion, although the scenes leading up to the finale advance the narrative in short, perfunctory bursts. Annabel's emotional connection with the children lends some heft to the final sequence, although much what happens doesn't make a lot of sense.

Chastain's solid performance combined with effective camerawork throughout keep concerns about narrative inconsistencies and logical hiccups at bay for a while. This is a good-looking motion picture that emphasizes style over story. Resolutions, especially those that overexplain supernatural motivations, often diminish horror movie conclusions, and this common flaw damages Mama. The film is a decidedly mixed bag that offers a few good scares but not a whole lot more.

Mama (Spain/Canada, 2013)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2013-01-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1