Review: MAMA, A Stylishly Directed But Disappointingly Predictable Horror Film

Featured Critic; New York City, New York
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Review: MAMA, A Stylishly Directed But Disappointingly Predictable Horror Film
"Once upon a time," reads the title card that kicks off Mama, a supernatural horror film by first time feature director Andy Muschietti, which is being sold under the imprimatur of a much more famous name, Guillermo del Toro, who serves as executive producer/mentor/godfather on this project. 

That opening clues in to the fact the Mama seeks to tap into the fairy tale, the primal source for spooky tales, a very old, tried-and-true form of storytelling. Mama is an expansion of a 2008 short that was very much a calling card for its director, who honed his filmmaking chops during 15 years of making commercials. The short gained the attention of del Toro, who eventually shepherded this film and took an active role in shaping it into the film that we have now. 

The result, as befits any work that bears del Toro's stamp, has some superficial affinities to his own films, most pertinently in this case Pan's Labyrinth. The prominent role of children in that film, the mining of the fairy tale form, and especially the creature design, are echoed to an extent in Mama. So certainly, this film has a promising pedigree, which ultimately gives us a film that is reasonably well-made and often stylish looking. 

Unfortunately, the effect of all this is greatly weakened by a scenario which deviates very little from the well-trod path of movies of its ilk - loud music cues, visual fake-outs meant to startle the audience out of their chairs, a tortured backstory of a ghost with unfinished business, extraneous supporting characters with no other function except to meet their demise by its resident creepy-crawly, etc., etc., etc. In genre terms, this is very old wine in a slightly new-ish bottle. The utter predictability of it all prevents Mama from being much more than a rather routine horror film.

Mama begins with an acknowledgement of the current bad economy, following Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), after financial distress has driven him to off his wife, kidnap his little girls,  and drive them to a cabin, where he plans to finish the job by doing himself in, along with his daughters. But he is prevented from doing so by you-know-who (see title). Cut to five years later, and the girls are found alone in the cabin, living as feral wild children. These two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are cleaned up and put in the care of their uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his rocker chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). 

Let's leave aside the utter implausibility of a couple with no discernible source of income being given custody of two girls with major psychological issues, living rent-free in a house owned by an institute that includes a certain Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who wants to study the girls for God knows what purpose. We don't look to movies like Mama with expectations of documentary-like realism - suspension of disbelief and all that. And sure enough, it isn't long before the thing that took care of the girls for five years turns out to be most definitely not in their heads, and starts wreaking havoc in the house, not taking too kindly to strange people becoming these girls' new loved ones.

Mama herself, when she is finally revealed in her full glory after the teasing glimpses throughout, is indeed an impressive looking creature, best described by Muschietti as "a Modigliani painting left to rot." The creature is embodied by seven-foot-tall Spanish actor Javier Botet (REC), who has unusually elastic physical characteristics, making him well-suited to play this sinuous, would-be terrifying creature. 

But once again, for this viewer, any sort of potential scares are dampened by the fact that we've been down this road way, way too many times before. The one wrinkle is a denouement that does go in a somewhat unexpected direction, but by then, it's too little, too late to prevent Mama from being yet another missed opportunity to take the horror film genre in a truly novel direction.

Mama opens wide across North America on Friday, November 18. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes. 
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Andy MuschiettiGuillermo del ToroJessica Chastain

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Amol JaiswalJanuary 18, 2013 11:34 AM

i loved Guillermo del Toro movies he has a great Gothic and Grotesque style.but except The orphange ,his produce movies like
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and splice have bombed at the box office even critics and audience have mix to negative reviews.i think mama will have a same fate.

Joshua ChaplinskyJanuary 20, 2013 12:25 AM

Mama? More like Meh-ma, amiright?!?!?!

Christopher BourneJanuary 20, 2013 9:29 PM

Exactly. Though, judging by the box office figures, lots and lots of people disagree with me.

Jason GorberJanuary 21, 2013 12:01 AM

Including me... :)

Cheers to alternative POVs.

Jason GorberJanuary 21, 2013 12:02 AM

Oh, and Josh, I did that one already... :)

Joshua ChaplinskyJanuary 21, 2013 6:33 AM


TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 21, 2013 2:10 PM

Never let box office -- especially opening weekend -- lead you to that assumption. You came to your view after actually seeing the film; second weekend drop-off is a better indicator of whether public opinion is tracking with yours and, in this case, I think it will. Drop-off is going to be precipitous on this one because people who see it will tell their friends: don't bother.

Saw this one last night with a screenwriter friend and I can't think of seeing a movie as messy as this one in a long time. Some interesting visual choices and compositions were, for me, ruined by truly confusing narrative choices and massive script-structural and production failures.

(spoilers ahead)

People go into the woods at noon and suddenly we're at another house at night - three times (what was the timeline in this story? Who knows? Not the film makers).

Ghosts that protect now want to harm and, even stranger, the other way around; speaking of which: what made dad snap? Finances? Marriage collapse? Off his meds? Fuck it, all the above! "This guy is REALLY on the frayed edge, people!" Too much.

A foil appears with the only real purpose of eventually being possessed (why do we need a possession? we have no idea).

A bridge with no meaning; endless resorting to "boo" scares that wear thin even when they're well-executed/constructed; a Donald Plesance-type character with no clear agenda. A McGuffin stored in a library for no reason and a librarian with mystical insight and an out-of-another-movie monologue. A classic Del Toro "That's (un)reality!" ending that left my fairly large audience disappointed -- not because it was down-instead-of-up, but because it wasn't properly led to and felt completely unearned.

Leaving the theater, my writer friend said "That could have been a good short" to which I told him it was. He even admitted to me (finally) that this made him understand what I see in Ti West's work. For him

Frankly, though I don't know any of them, I have to say this lies more on the producers involved than the film-makers (much as I'd usually like to say otherwise). The look was good, the script had an additional writer and they had decent resources. To say "well, it's a genre film" is a cop-out for fans. There's never an excuse that much scatter-shot story telling, everything-and-the-sink plotting, except failure to manage the process in a competent manner. I'd like to see this guy make a film with better producer involvement.

Christopher BourneJanuary 21, 2013 9:53 PM

You're absolutely right, the second weekend will be the test of whether MAMA has "legs," as they say. We'll see.

Yes, as you say, the "boo scares," as you call them, and all the other horror movie cliches, got really tiresome. The audience at the preview screening I attended were actually laughing after a certain point; all these tired mechanics were actually comical.

Muschetti definitely has talent; he's been making commercials for 15 years, so he knows his way around a camera. Hopefully he'll have much better material the next time around.

Christopher BourneJanuary 21, 2013 9:58 PM

Yup, it's what makes the world go round. :) I have to say I enjoyed reading this discussion. Kudos to you for getting it all in print; it couldn't have been easy. Del Toro does love to talk, doesn't he? But he always has very interesting things to say.

Martin WagnerJanuary 24, 2013 9:15 AM

Yeah, I could never figure figure out, "Why are they always going to the creepy cabin in the dead of night?" Or, "Why, if this ghost is so fearsome and has the capability of pretty much killing anyone instantly and even possessing people's bodies, does it run and hide in the closet when Jessica Chastain walks into the room?" Logic was not this movie's friend.