I finally got the chance to get out and see a recent release in the theater. The good old days of being able to go see a film whenever I want are long over so whenever I get the opportunity to see a genre film in the theaters I grab it. I didn’t hesitate for a second to check out MAMA. This one’s been getting great press and had a more than solid opening weekend (an almost $30 million opening weekend on a $15 million budget). It doesn’t hurt that none other than Guillermo del Toro is the executive producer, but I don’t think people would just give this one good reviews if the story sucked. Remember 2010’s DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK? Yeah, neither do most people. What was really surprising is that my wife wanted to check out MAMA. I love using my wife’s reaction to horror films as the non-genre loving barometer. She doesn’t hate horror films per se, but she definitely enjoys a specific kind (she hates gore). So let’s see how MAMA holds up to a horror lover and a horror tolerator.
MAMA opens up on a bit of a downer. A successful man loses his nut and kills his business partners and his wife. He then collects his two young daughters and drives off into the icy, wintry day. After hitting a patch of ice and ending up asshole over tea kettle in the woods, the father, Jeffrey, sets off to nowhere in particular in the snowy woods. They stumble across a little shack in the woods and even though the oldest daughter Victoria (Megan Charpentier) warns dear old dad that there’s something inside the shack, he ignores her warnings. Of course there’s something inside the shack that kills the dad and seems to want to take care of the two little girls. We then flash forward five years and the girls’ uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau; he also played the brief role of Jeffrey) hasn’t given up hope of finding them even though it seems that everyone else has. Lucas has a few questionable hunters on the payroll who have been continuously searching for the girls for five years. Yes it seems a little odd that none of the searchers even found the father’s car that crashed in the woods five years ago (it was snowing and there clearly were skid marks), but luckily these two hunters found the car and soon after, the cabin. Inside they find the very feral and animal-like little girls, Victoria and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse). They are brought back to civilization and are observed by the scrupulous psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). After being under the doctor’s care for a few months, the girls are then handed over to the unwed and childless Lucas and his heavy metal girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). The kids still haven’t adjusted to civilized society but the doctor thinks all they need is time, a loving family, and stability. But not too long after the girls arrive there’s suddenly a string of very bizarre and mysterious sounds and sights being observed by Lucas and Annabel. Is the house haunted? Is whatever looked out for the kids in the wild coming back for visitation rights?
MAMA is directed by Andrés Muschietti and is written by Muschietti, Neil Cross, and Barbara Muschietti. Andrés does a really nice job controlling the material here but I think the writers all shit the bed here as far as blowing their wad too soon. Before the girls’ dad, Jeffrey, dies in the pre-credit sequence we already know that the creature in MAMA is going to be a ghost. When they first arrived at the shack, Victoria broke her glasses. But when she first sees Mama she is squinting and tells her dad, “I see someone, daddy … and they’re floating.” Putting aside my general dislike of ghost stories, I was really let down that MAMA ended up being one. I was hoping for some kind of previously-unknown-creature that took the girls in and protected them and now wants them back. Unfortunately the writers here had a different idea. My main problem with ghost stories is that they all follow the same formula. A ghost makes it’s presence known; it haunts people; it kills some people; and then someone does some research and figures out the ghost’s past and tries to reconcile it’s traumatic past. MAMA follows this formula to a “T”.
A. Muschietti does indeed get some good scares and he does a fantastic job of setting up the scene for some good frights, but at the end of the day it’s just another ghost story. Luckily the acting was strong all around. The little girls do great jobs in their roles. The older daughter Victoria is old enough to remember life before Mama and is trying hard to adapt to the civilized world. Lilly, on the other hand, was abandoned in the woods when she was only a year old. She’s not really adapting well to society. She prefers to walk/run around on all fours and eat bugs and refuses to break her bond with Mama. After one scene where Lilly was huddled up in the corner eating bugs, my wife leaned over to me and whispered, “I think it’s time Lucas and Annabel cut their losses with Lilly.” Indeed. But there’s some really effective scenes of the girls playing with Mama, who is just off screen. Very creepy.
I also wasn’t crazy about Annabel’s character at first. She was too abrasive and gave absolutely no indication that in real life she’d actually stick around to help out Lucas with the girls. She came across as a self-absorbed ‘rocker’ trying to make it as a heavy metal musician. I know that this gave her character a chance to grow and develop, but she really got on my nerves until about half way through the film. Her character makes a dramatic change that I ignored simply because I liked her character better in the second half of the movie. There was also a side story about the little girl’s other Aunt that really went nowhere, and Dr. Dreyfuss proves that he’s got an ulterior motive for wanting to be around the kids that also ultimately ends up going nowhere. The focus, though, is of course on the kids, Lucas, and Annabel and for what it is it works well enough. I don’t think MAMA will make anyone’s Best of 2013 list at the end of the year, but it was entertaining.
The other two things that bugged me in MAMA was first, the trailer. The trailer essentially spoiled all the scary scenes. Seriously; it shows waaaaaay too much. I probably would’ve jumped a few times if not for the trailer ruining all the set ups and scare scenes. The other problem I had was with the CGI. In the beginning of the film we only got to see bits and pieces of Mama, almost as if we were seeing her out of the corner of out eye. But by the end of the film we were getting full on lingering shots of her. It was just was too much CGI. Her hair was all waving around and the first thing I thought of when I saw it was the 1997 film, SPAWN, where Spawn’s cape was blowing around and continuously in motion.
It sounds like I had a lot of problems with MAMA, but at the end of the day I was entertained by the film. The writing wasn’t always great but the direction was spot on in most of the film. A. Muschietti does a helluva job setting up some good scare scenes. It’s just unfortunate that the too-detailed trailer ruins most of those scares. I was also admittedly disappointed that MAMA ended up being a run-of-the-mill ghost story. I guess I was hoping for something more along the lines of THE NEW DAUGHTER. The opportunity was here to introduce some kind of new creature into the genre and the writers instead went with the tiresome old ghost (at least it wasn’t a sparkly vampire!!). All this aside, I enjoyed MAMA and am still recommending it. Just don’t expect to be blown away.
Director: Andrés Muschietti (& co-writer with Neil Cross & Barbara Muschietti)
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer