In 2008, Andy Muschetti released a three-minute film, the terrifying short Mamá. It caught the attention of Guillermo Del Toro, who signed on to produce the feature-length version of the film. The longer version certainly has its frights and a strong cast to call on, but it fails to consistently deliver on the scares promised.
Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are a young couple – she’s in a rock band and is first seen celebrating a negative pregnancy test; he “draws pictures for a living” (whatever that means). At the start of the film, Lucas’s brother kills his estranged wife and kidnaps his own children. When the two girls are found five years later, Annabel and Lucas agree to take them in, despite Annabel’s reservations and the couple’s unpreparedness for raising children.
…certainly has its frights and a strong cast to call on, but it fails to consistently deliver on the scares promised.
The children, Victoria and Lilly, have been staying in a cabin deep in the woods, cared for by a mysterious supernatural figure they call “Mama”. Mama follows the children to their new home, where she becomes increasingly jealous of the children’s new family and starts to haunt and terrorize them.
One of the major decisions directors of horror films face revolves around when they should show the monster and how exactly to do so. Muschetti tackles this challenge head-on. Many films in the genre keep their monsters off-camera for a substantial part of the film, showing only the victims’ helpless and terrified faces as they are methodically slaughtered. Muschetti instead shows us Mama from the start, but keeps her obfuscated – first with a blurred point of view shot through Victoria’s eyes while her glasses are off, and later through clever use of light and shadow.
Mama is led by a strong cast, featuring a pair of talented leads alongside two of the most adorable children you will ever see in a horror film. Coster-Waldau, best known for Game of Thrones and the terrific Norwegian film Headhunters, is good but his role is surprisingly limited, and it is Chastain who steals the show. With the actress fresh off an Oscar-nominated performance in Zero Dark Thirty, I’m pressed to think of another star who has played two more different roles in films showing concurrently. In the film, Annabel must make the difficult transition from hard-headed rocker to a selfless and caring mother figure – it’s one of the only believable character changes in the movie, and much of the credit for that goes to Chastain.
Unfortunately, two other characters who also receive quite a bit of screen time serve little purpose beyond moving the story along, and function without any real depth or motive behind their actions. I want to describe the character of Dr. Dreyfuss, the man in charge of the children’s case, but I could only do so through things he does, not things he is – a telltale sign of a one-dimensional character.
The film truly starts to fall apart when it begins trying to explain what Mama is and her motivation for following the children. The script and direction seem to be at odds…
Even more troubling is the narrative arc surrounding the character of Jean – a wealthy aunt who asks for custody of Victoria and Lilly after they are found. The film desperately wants you to believe that Annabel and Lucas should have the kids, but for no reason beyond the fact that they are the protagonists. Muschetti offers no argument for why Aunt Jean should not receive custody, and yet it’s clear that we as audience members are meant to feel that she shouldn’t. Jean is simply framed as the opposition to Annabel and Lucas.
The film truly starts to fall apart when it begins trying to explain what Mama is and her motivation for following the children. The script and direction seem to be at odds with each other over the issue of whether Mama is a sympathetic figure or a scary one. The writing clearly posits her as a figure we should feel sorry for and even pity, but the (very strong) direction appears driven by the idea that ‘this is a horror film, damn it, we need a horror villain!’ This is not an attempt to create a nuanced character – if that were the case, both the script and visuals would have elements of sympathy and fear within them. Instead, this is another example of poor character development in Mama.
The three-minute scene that comprises the short is used late in the film, and it certainly holds up as one of the scariest in recent film history. Unfortunately, it’s also the only extended sequence in the film that really grabs you – there’s no sustained horror because we’re confused as to whether or not we should by scared by the monster.
The character development continues to grow as a problem throughout the film, and by the time we reach its fairly non-sensical conclusion, characters have begun changing motives for no apparent reason. Without spoiling the ending, Muschetti does something truly unique by treating the children as characters and not just props. Unfortunately, though, that attention is not extended to the villain, and so the film falls short.
[notification type=”star”]50/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Muschetti should be commended for his excellent direction, and Jessica Chastain gives a wonderful performance, but the awful script-writing turns it from a great horror film with a semi-original idea into another simply passable one.[/notification]