I want my Mama, but this isn’t it.
Three weekends into 2013, and I’ve already suffered my first big moviegoing disappointment of the year. I guess I should learn my lesson: a producing credit for Guillermo del Toro does not automatically guarantee a great movie. This is a lesson I didn’t learn from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), but one I won’t fail to acknowledge for Mama.
I can’t say I blame del Toro for championing Mama after seeing the 2008 short film of the same name by director Andres Muschietti. (Actually, it’s more like a single scene, barely running three minutes.) The talent of Muschietti is clearly evident in both the short and the feature film. He knows how to create atmosphere and make the audience jump… repeatedly.
Unfortunately, he (and fellow screenwriters Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti) is unable to successfully extend the concept to a 100-minute running time. What at first appears to be an original horror film ultimately becomes a standard ghost story stitched together with great ideas from several other movies. Particularly heavy is the influence of J-horror classics like Ringu, from the billowing hair of Mama that seems to be floating in water to specific plot points and scenes.
The trailers for Mama, as well as the first third of the movie, promise so much more than that. When discovered in a remote cabin in the woods five years after being abandoned by their father, two little girls have developed into feral creatures. Their movements and behaviors are among the creepiest moments of the movie. When introduced back to civilization, though, the older sister returns to something closer to normal, their edge begins to dissipate and the originality fades.
About this time, the script also gets sloppy. It’s not clear which scenes occur during the day and which at night. Getting out of the hospital “the next day” turns out to be several, with no explanation. One thing’s for certain, though: if someone investigates a strange location, it will inevitably be dark. I guess I should be grateful that it’s not also stormy.
A solid foundation is laid with the characters and actors, but like everything else, it begins to crumble midway through the movie. The reason for getting the girls into the cabin in the first place is original, shrouded in a real-life mystery torn from today’s headlines. And the reason for locating them five years later is fresh and compelling. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and recent Golden Globe-winner Jessica Chastain are quite good as the uncle eager to find his nieces and the significant other reluctant to offer them a home. They mostly rise above the script, but eventually become mired in its weaknesses.
It’s easy for me to nitpick a movie that should be better than it is, and I’m sure it sounds like I’m being too hard on Mama. But it really isn’t an entire waste. The camerawork is thrilling, whether following a car careening down a snowy highway or illustrating a Mama-influenced dream. (Chastain’s dream was my favorite scene and could easily stand on its own as a terrifying short film.) And there are some truly frightening moments. It’s just that overall, the sum of the movie is not greater than its parts. One day, though, we may just refer to Mama as the first full-length film from a great horror director.