Jan 31, 2013
A promising, well made, if uneven movie by Andrés Muschietti, Mama has a lot of great ideas, but it's muddled by too much reliance on fantasy and contrived plot points. The good news is that, as scary movies go, this one at least has a very interesting subtext: it's not just about two yahoos in a house with a ghost and a video camera. It's about the dark side of mothering, a very scary subject.
Two feral girls are found and adopted by their uncle and it turns out that they have survived five years in an abandoned cabin (with fabulous mid-century furniture, somehow) by eating cherries, because "someone" has been taking care of them. The kids are fantastic, in particular, the younger creepy one (Isabelle Nélisse). They move like strange animals and are utterly terrifying, although they are not evil in themselves. The uncle is married to a rocker (Jessica Chastain, trying hard to look punkish), who doesn't have a maternal bone in her body. As they move to a new house, they realize that "Mama" has followed them and wants them back. Some of the movie is truly creepy. Muschietti relies too much in jolts of sound effects to make you jump in your seat, but there are a couple of truly spine tingling moments. In the best scene of the movie, the little one, Lily, is cheerfully playing tug of war with someone unseen, while Jessica Chastain is oblivious to the presence of a very heavy spirit in the kids' room. It is loving, innocent play, yet it is terrifying. Also moving is the fact that the older sister, Victoria, realizes that she is not so attached to Mama anymore, that she rather have the consolation of a flesh and blood mother, and the warmth of a normal home on Earth, and this causes her real, devastating pain, as well as fear. Lily, meanwhile, is completely transfixed by and attached to Mama, as she seems to also be more comfortable in the world of shadows than in life. This division between people who have life affirming tendencies and those who seek comfort in darkness is beautifully rendered. It is very poignant, and rings true that it is the youngest one who can't detach from the ghost's love. Her loss at a very early age has stunted her, and in many ways she is still a baby. The visceral feelings that maternal love evokes are a great subject for a scary story. Yet Mama misses many opportunities to further explore these attachments, or the way the girls react to their new lives. Instead it relies on facile plot turns and wasted characters. An embittered aunt who wants custody of the girls makes a third maternal character and I was hoping she would be yet another source of pain, the greedy wanna be mother, but she only serves as a plot device for a rather contrived ending. As for Mama herself, her story is harrowing enough to make her haunt parentless children forever. If only her ghost would remain a suggested shadow, a rustle, instead of an increasingly garish special effects creature, with an uncanny resemblance to Julie Taymor, were she stretched on a rack. But having Guillermo Del Toro as a producer usually means that some cheesy creature (as well as deeply overwrought music) will make an appearance, despite the fact that the suggested, the ominous, and the unseen are always a million times creepier and scarier.
I must confess, I don't care for fantasy. I avoid Hobbits, Harry Potters and Middle Earths like the plague. In a similar vein to Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, Mama aims at fantastic horror, but the more fantastic it is, the less horrifying.