One can’t help but admire Guillermo Del Toro. Not only is he a true movie-buff who makes ambitious, original, off-the-wall films, but he also supports the little guys, extending his influence so that emerging directors can make horror films of their own. This worked very well with the excellent modern classic The Orphanage, the criminally underseen Julia’s Eyes, and the completely batshit Splice. However, his last effort as a horror producer, Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, was a major disappointment that brought a tinge of doubt to his future features as a producer, whatever they were going to be.
The latest Del Toro-produced horror offering, Andrés Muschietti’s Mama, at the very least has a killer premise: Victoria and Lily are two young girls whose parents were killed. With no guardians to take care of them, they were left to their own devices in a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods. Five years later, their uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones‘s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is still searching for his nieces and married to the ludicrously gorgeous Annabel (Jessica Chastain). When the young girls are found, however, they’re covered in mud, nearly feral, and are talking to an imaginary maternal figure they call “Mama”. When Jeffrey and Annabel adopt them, what they don’t realize soon enough is that Mama is very real and has a lasting hold on the two children.
Mama is certainly a step up from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but it has its own fair share of problems. After a strong, creepy opening scene that sets the stage and the mood very nicely, the film proceeds to go down the standard horror movie pattern of stingers, teases, mysterious noises in the night, jump scares, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s very hit-and-miss. About half of them fall flat (tired of the “Camera-Flash” jump-scare, yet?) while the ones that work do so whenever Muschietti decides to do playful things with the camera, like toying with objects and characters entering and exiting the frame as it moves around the house in longer-than-usual takes. The most chilling moment is a still shot of a hallway and the girls’ bedroom, with characters walking down the hallway oblivious to the craziness going on in the room beside them.
What also surprisingly works is the mystery and mythology surrounding the titular Mama figure. Playing out almost like a supernatural mystery film, Muschietti gradually reveals new tidbits of information behind the mystery of “Who is Mama?”, providing just enough to give the film a semblance of a plot. Of course, the actual conclusion we get to is disappointingly obvious, but it’s at least interesting enough to follow along, and the cast certainly elevates the material, with Jessica Chastain further displaying her incredible range after her Oscar-worthy turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Even the child actors–with the exception of the younger Victoria in the opening–are relatively strong.
Some of the jump scares are effective and there are two very creepy dream sequences that utilize visual effects in interesting ways; one of them features a twitching figure in the distance that’s reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder and the Silent Hill video games, while the other plays around with filters in unsettling ways. But the most eerie thing about Mama is Mama herself. Her design is simple yet incredibly grotesque, and the film wisely withholds visual information until the final moments, allowing our imaginations to do the heavy lifting just long enough, while leaving behind more nuggets of her appearance as it progresses. Sadly, we get too many revealing shots of her in the film’s climax, and while the CG effects are somewhat impressive, it’s still obviously CG, and it significantly reduces the threat factor.
So while Mama has plenty of working elements, there’s just not enough of them to sustain the picture’s running time and they don’t come together to form something special. Mama is apparently a feature-length adaptation of a 3-minute short film, and it definitely shows. Even with the benefits of a compelling mystery for the creature at the center, the film still plods along with the aforementioned build-up-to-jump-scare pattern that’s been done in numerous horror movies before and better. There is some thoughtful subtext lurking beneath the surface regarding maternal instinct and affection, but it doesn’t feel fully realized enough to give a lasting emotional impact.
As a result, Mama‘s scares are serviceable at best while the emotions don’t quite hit home either. Thankfully, there’s enough creepiness, good performances, and original ideas in here to keep it from being a total waste. The seeds of a truly great horror film are here, but they aren’t quite developed enough to leave you with something truly memorable. There are worse ways to spend your time at a theater, and it will make for a solid rental, but horror fans looking for something more along the quality of The Orphanage should look elsewhere.