“Mama”

So here’s the thing. I am obsessed with the supernatural. It’s a broad topic, and it means different things for different people. But it’s what I do. It’s what I love, to the extent that I’m trying, in a manner of speaking, to make a career of it.

On one level, then, I loved Mamain the same way that I love The Grudge or ShutterNow, hear me out: I love them because they are making use of the theme that is my thing. They take a simple premise–the revenant–and they run with it, introducing (or recycling) some cool imagery and providing some memorable set-pieces and encounters. I don’t love them as films, exactly: but I love them for what they attempt to do.

But it’s not enough that a film (or anything else) just happens to be visibly related to something great. If that were the case, The Phantom Menace would be as beloved as A New Hope. Mama, thank god, is a damn sight better than Phantom Menace, but the filmmakers made some of the same mistakes Lucas made. The difference is that instead of basing their mistakes on the original Star Wars trilogy and adding LSD and head trauma, Mama’s  crew took its cues from the entire last decade or so of horror. It could have been an effective homage to the best of the best–and in a few ways, it was–but there were enough poor decisions to seriously undercut this aspect of the film. And that’s the really heartbreaking thing: the bad parts aren’t the results of laziness or lack of talent.  They stem entirely from a misreading of what works in genre film, and the dangerous assumption that Good Thing A + Good Thing B = Good Thing C. Unfortunately it doesn’t always end up with a creepy old shopkeeper handing you and your peanut butter-guzzling lady friend free Reese’s:

[Minor spoilers.] The premise is all spelled out in the official trailer: Victoria and Lily are two little girls who’ve been “alone” (quotes!) in a cabin in the woods for five years. When their uncle finally tracks them down (via two hillbillies and a bloodhound), they’re feral and hissy and reminded me, alas, of those creatures from Del Toro’s horrendous Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. One Dr. Dreyfuss (he is apparently not Tony Shaloub from Monk) is assigned to help the girls readjust to civilized life, or something (seriously, what IRB would ever approve this?). Once they’re readyish, they get to go live with their uncle and his rock-and-roll-I-don’t-ever-want-kids-but-I’m-actually-a-fertile-mother-figure life partner, Jessica Chastain. From there it’s a predictable downward spiral of increasingly spooky stuff (pretty sure I’ve written this at least once before…), culminating in the eventual realization that the seemingly fictional “Mama” person the girls keep talking about/to isn’t actually fictional.

So far so good. It’s very much The Ring (with its emphasis on the mother/child relationship and the perversion thereof) meets The Grudge (with its unstoppable ghost that just attaches itself to people and toys with them before finally offing them like a cat with a freshly three-legged mouse). A tribute, if you will. I can dig. But then it falls apart.

First, it is possible to do too much borrowing, and I swear at times I could just see producer Del Toro standing there with a checklist that must have looked something like this:

  1. Creepy children.
  2. Frightening female ghost with disjointed movements and freaky contortions and long hair that moves on its own.
  3. Said creepy children drawing creepy things.
  4. Creepy dolls and stuff.
  5. Incredulous science-person.
  6. Cash moneys.

One of the most interesting things about Mama, in my mind, is that it takes not just a page, but several whole chapters from Sweet Home‘s book. When I wrote about Sweet Home ages back–before I turned this into a review site–I tried to convey how impressed I was by the weirdness of that film, whose sunny first act stands in stark contrast to its bloody, gruesome second. Mama captures some of that, and indeed shares nearly identical themes–and a startlingly similar antagonist–with Sweet Home. In fact, the physical (so to speak) resemblance between Mama and Lady Mamiya of Sweet Home (in her final appearance) is considerable, and the strategy used by the protagonists of both films to finally deal with their ghost problems is identical.

These references to an earlier film aren’t problematic for me. In fact, being more like Sweet Home could only help Mama. But it doesn’t quite live up in terms of the sheer awfulness of the former. The scene with the melting wheelchair in Sweet Home, for some reason, struck me as one of the most powerfully, grotesquely hopeless and ominous scenes in supernatural horror cinema. Mama doesn’t have anything quite like it, choosing instead to go for the now-mandatory series of jump scares interspersed with creepy exposition and gradually-eroding disbelief.

The film also suffers a bit from the typical too-loud bangs and crashes and discordant music when scary stuff happens, and from one or two lousy performances. Dr. Dreyfuss is lackluster, and the archivist lady is way too familiar with where they keep the dead people (in a paper archive? what?!).

All that is forgivable. What really starts to break things comes down to what the filmmakers choose to show, and how they choose to show it. I read a review somewhere that complained about the eponymous Mama being too visible in this film, and on reflection I’d have to say that this is true. Mama gets more screen time–full-on, see-everything screen time–than most other horror monsters, and while it could have worked, the filmmakers sabotaged themselves with bizarre aesthetic decisions, like a clump of hair slithering across the floor like a shaggy Guinea pig. Or a scene where Mama fades down into the floor up to her eyes, so she’s glaring out at one of the little girls in what somebody clearly thought was a frightening tableau, but which was held for just a beat too long and actually made me laugh out loud. Mama herself is sometimes scary, sometimes comical. She does some interesting things, and the re-working of the chase from the original short film is effective. But it doesn’t quite come together.

The worst moments are reserved for the almost nonsensical final scene, which includes a ton of underdeveloped imagery (moths?) and several more moments of unintentional hilarity (“Sleep, Annabelle!”). The entire ending is stunningly similar to Sweet Home, but one sequence in particular is almost surely a direct borrowing. The worst part is that I just don’t fully buy it. I know, that’s a difficult position to defend in the context of a supernatural horror film; but I still feel as though the decisions made by the main characters in the final moments don’t quite add up.

What’s good in Mama is indeed pretty good, especially Chastain’s performance as a strong female lead character who at least nominally resists gender stereotypes (though by the end of the film her nurturing maternal side has appeared as if from nowhere). The film also boasts some of the cutest child actors ever, which effectively underscored the corruption-of-maternity (and, to a lesser extent, paternity) theme that the filmmakers leaned so heavily on throughout. What’s bad is sometimes so bad it’s good–as with the unintentional comedy–but, more often than not, is just disappointing. I found the resolution, which some have touted as the film’s strong point, to be not only very unsatisfying, but also nonsensical (there’s a slight departure from the way it’s handled in Sweet Home–I won’t spoil it, but prepare to be underwhelmed).

I was worried that the film would be as terrible as the last two Del Toro-ish projects I suffered through (the aforementioned Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and The Strain novels he wrote with Chuck Hogan). Thankfully it wasn’t. Mama is worth seeing, and it beats the pants off of many of the recent big-budget horror films to splosh their way into theaters. But that’s not saying much. 81/100.

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