Published on July 3rd, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Mama delivers an eerie vibe thanks to some nifty CGI and its pair of creepy little girls. However, the film is under-written and sputters during its climax.
PG-13 | 100 min.
Director: Andy (Andrés) Muschietti | Screenplay: Neil Cross, Andy & Barbara Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau
Studio: Toma 78, De Milo Productions | Distribution: Universal Pictures
A creepy vibe and some convincing CGI don’t make a great horror flick. We learned that lesson in 2000 with Robert Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath and in plenty of movies since–most recently in Mama.
This ghost story is the latest in a long line of “Guillermo del Toro Presents…” titles, and the homers will have to forgive me for not knowing why I should care if his name is attached to a project. In the late-’90s, loads of kung-fu movies began hitting theaters with the Quentin Tarantino Seal of Approval and the same thing is happening with del Toro. There’s no question that Pan’s Labyrinth was a great film but the guy has only directed one movie since that 2006 masterpiece–leaving me to wonder why I should be so interested in his influence.
I digress–Mama is a movie about sisterly love and the natural protective instincts of a mother for her young. The screenplay was adapted by Argentinian director Andy Muschietti from a short film of the same name he produced in 2008, which del Toro apparently saw and loved. The plot centers on young siblings Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Néilsse), who are marooned in a mountain cabin for five years by their father. A search team paid by their uncle Lucas (Nikoalaj Coster-Waldau) eventually locates the pair, who have become feral children raised by a mysterious apparition referred to as “Mama”. As the girls return to civilized life, Mama continues to protect them as Lucas’s rock musician girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) grows closer to them.
As is typical with ‘ghost’ subgenre movies, Mama‘s conflict is largely derived from certain characters’ disbelief in the spirit itself. Like Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist and Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, Chastain’s Annabel must learn the hard way to what comes from the mouths of babes.
Chastain’s look in the film is completely against type–her beautiful red hair and fair skin are traded for a jet black pixie cut and some ink. This role is also a great departure from the more demure character she played brilliantly in The Help, and is more in-line with her hardass Oscar-nominated performance in Zero Dark Thirty. Along with the adolescent Charpentier, Chastain is Mama‘s best attribute–continuing to solidify herself as one of Hollywood’s go-to actress for gritty characterizations.
Muschietti successfully creates a creepy atmosphere and uses subtle scares at the frame’s edges through most of the film, but Mama‘s plot has more holes than a block of swiss cheese by the time we reach its clunky conclusion. For instance, we’re supposed to believe gaggles of search parties couldn’t locate a big cabin or an overturned car in the middle of snow-filled woods for five years? Also, once the girls are found, its like everyone forgets about their father as no attempt is made to locate him despite his numerous crimes. It’s also suspect that any court would award custody of two severely traumatized children to a low-income artist and his bad-attitude punk girlfriend with zero child-raising experience…these oversights just pile up as Mama rolls on.
If you’re down for a more sophisticated chiller, give Mama a spin but something tells me Muschietti’s original Spanish-language short was much better. By the 85-minute mark, we’ve gone from a simple family ghost story to a wacky physical showdown between realms–on the side of a cliff! Mama features an interesting story about guardianship but it seems to spin out of control somewhere along the line.
Then again, we may have found the most badass imaginary friend in recent film history.