When I heard that Guillermo del Toro was attached to Mama (only as a producer this time), I expected something on the del Toro spectrum closer to The Orphanage or Pan’s Labyrinth than to Kung Fu Panda 2. But a word to all the real, “the bloodier the better” horror fans out there: Mama is rated PG-13 for a reason. The reason is that if you’re thirteen, it’s probably kind of scary (that and they only say the f-word once). But if you’re old enough to say the f-word whenever you damn well please, and you want to be super impressed by the next del Toro release, you may want to skip this one and wait for Pacific Rim.
Mama has such potential. It’s a freaky concept. A brutal family murder leads a desperate father to drive his two little girls into the woods. The girls end up alone in a cabin for five years, subsisting only on cherries and the tender love and care of Mama, a disfigured and frankly, overly protective ghost. Because when the girls are rescued and rehabilitated by their uncle (the very pretty but utterly useless Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and I only say that because he does nothing in the movie except get incapacitated several times) and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who is ill-equipped to handle children and even more ill-equipped to pull off seeming “punk rock,” Mama gets mad.
There were glimmers of such good in there. The little girls do a fantastic job at seeming like they lived in the woods for five years. They monkey-walk creepily all over the place, hide under beds, scream and jump. The littler one, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) is particularly great, since she’s the sister who was too young when it all went down to have been able to adjust to returning to real human life. The concept of a protective ghost, a tortured, motherly soul who helps these two young girls survive, and who they in turn love and feel a deep connection to is brilliant. How, and why, do you get rid of a ghost that they need, that they love? Throw in the reluctant human mother figure of Annabel, who only cares for the girls out of necessity, at least at first, and you have this intense, psychological struggle at work. Or so it would seem.
Mama only grazes the surface of these potential mines of terrifying emotional complexity, opting instead for cheap scares, characters who the whole time seem inexplicably not that surprised that there’s an actual ghost haunting them, and almost every single tired horror convention in the book, some of which I will list right here, for you, right now…
- Mama is replete with slow zooms onto characters who have their eyes closed, then, with a swell of intense music and a burst of noise, they OPEN THEIR EYES REALLY FAST AND STARE CREEPILY.
- Don’t forget the haggy lady in charge of the library and/or “town records” who says ominous, foreshadow-y things and provides all the exposition you’ll ever need and then some to the super determined psychologist whose life has been consumed by this unicum of a case.
- Gratuitous cross imagery.
- That thing where something scary is happening and then with a gasp, the main character wakes up from a dream, sweating and panting, and then another scary thing happens and you’re like “OH, SHIT!” but then she wakes up again because it was a dream within a dream and they just wanted to fool you!
- Don’t forget that old cabin in the woods where all the horror originates, so obviously everyone goes to visit it alone, in the middle of the night, with an unreliable flashlight.
- You can’t have that cabin in the woods without that old sign on the side of the road that points toward that cabin in the woods that they cut to to show you that someone has made a bad decision to go to the cabin, so…uh oh!
In the original short Mama is based on, which can be viewed here, the ghost of Mama is more visceral, more disgusting, and way scarier. In the feature, the whole look of the film and of Mama herself gets Hollywood-ified. It’s like director, Andrés Muschietti, took his brilliant little short, which is brownish and angular and dirty and terrifying, and injected it with Botox, making it a little more rounded, a little more blue, and a little less able to really express anything. Maybe if the feature stuck to the aesthetic of the short, it wouldn’t have gotten the wide release it did, but it means the film comes across like an attempt to paint the screen glossy with an unfortunately Hollywoody and disposable fright flick.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about Mama is the fact that guy who plays the psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss, this fairly prolific actor named Daniel Kash, looks almost exactly like Tony Shalhoub.
Grade: C + (the plus goes to the original short)