Mama – Review

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Mama - Review

Horror films make money. An incredible amount of money. Of all the moviegoing sub-cultures, the horror audience is the most reliable to turn up and pay up at the box office, the relentless hunger of the horror crowd made all the more baffling by the fact that they’re being served the same thing over and over and over again. Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination, Halloween, Friday the 13th, each franchise just a series of variations on the original (except Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, which is nuts). For god’s sake, there are ELEVEN Amityville Horror films out there, and all of these movies I’ve mentioned make money not in spite of adhering to their own strict formulas, but because they adhere to them. Even excluding franchises how many times have we seen the following templates: “teens assemble in a place and are killed in that place”, “struggling writer moves to a new place and is troubled by an urban legend”, or “aren’t little girls f***king terrifying?”

The pavlovian reliability of the horror box-office almost entirely removes the onus normally placed upon filmmakers to constantly reinvent, subvert, and master the founding tenants of filmic storytelling: premise, script, cinematography, score, sound design. Knowing that the rote is profitable and that audiences have an inexplicable attraction to the familiar, most horrors simply pick a plot template and clothe it in a different gimmick. This killer uses puppets! This one’s set in a circus! This one has a f***king terrifying little girl in it! These are generalisations of course and there’s no doubt some innovative and exciting filmmakers working in horror today – Peter Strickland, Ben Wheatly, Ti West to name but three – but so often the conventions of horror bully and constrict an otherwise intriguing premise until it resembles just one more of the staid horror movie templates. Take, for example, Mama, which, for the first half an hour or so of its running time, was one of the best horror films I’d seen this year, but over time became hampered by trying to fulfil the expectations of what a horror film ‘has to include these days’. It’s not a bad film by any stretch but it could have been something truly unique.

Mama stars Jessica Chastain playing nicely against ethereal type as Annabel, an alternative rock musician resolutely against starting a family, who finds herself becoming surrogate mother by a macabre twist of circumstance. Her lover’s nieces, Lilly and Victoria, have been found, after 5 years of being missing presumed dead, seemingly alone in a cabin in the woods. With no parents left to care for them, Annabel and her partner Luke take them in, but the girls are a little … off. Displaying far more animal characteristics than human – eating moths, scuttling on all fours – they claim to have been nurtured all this time by a mysterious entity known only as ‘Mama’ and, as Annabel struggles to acclimatise the traumatised girls to civilised life (more out of guilt and duty than genuine care) ‘Mama’ returns and, dammit, she wants her kids back.



The film’s directed by Andy Muschietti, but more importantly – as the marketing would have you believe – executively produced by Guillermo Del Toro, which comes as no surprise given the macabre fairytale nature of the film’s premise. It’s also based on Muscietti’s 2008 short film, Mamá,(from which one of the film’s most heart-stopping sequences is recreated shot for shot) which was discovered by Del Toro, who pushed for a feature.

So what makes Mama good? The craftsmanship. The premise is brilliantly unique, unnerving in its corruption of the terrifying little girl cliché (the scary girls aren’t the source of the horror, but have rather become scary because of being nurtured by horror) and it’s genuinely hard to predict. The script is great, themes of motherhood, madness and the thin line between the two nicely explored with plenty of warm, human dialogue for its leads. The cinematography is beautifully shot and intelligently composed throughout, a few dreamlike sequences especially showing the welcome influence of Del Toro’s ornate and visually poetic fantasy. The score mixes childhood refrains with brooding menace (more Del Toro) and the sound design – of ‘Mama’ especially – is bloody wonderful, managing to be melodic but inhuman and terrifying all at once. In a genre where the bare minimum still reaps in the dollar (I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity 4, you lazy bugger, you) seeing this much effort and craft from those in production is a joy.

But Mama is by no means perfect. For starters, it’s far too in love with its monster, showing ‘Mama’ early and often. In small doses, ‘Mama’ as wonderful beast, sprawling hair, jerky-limbed, with a chillingly drowned voice, but the film is so overeager to punctuate its running time with jump-scares that it just keeps throwing her at us, in all her iffy CG glory, to the point that we become accustomed to her, leaving the film no way to visually raise the stakes when it comes to the climax. Muschietti knows how to subtly scare – a beautiful protracted shot of one of the girls playing tug-of-war with something that never quite makes it into the shot is a nerve-shredder – so it’s disappointing that he cheapens his film with ‘boo! loud music’ moments so often. A previously intelligent character’s choice to break into an abandoned mental hospital at night, when there was no reason not to wait for the daytime, provides for a well-engineered scare or two, but is so dumb and such a formulaic setup that it only serves to suck personality from the film and creep closer to generic horror territory.

The overabundance of ‘Mama’ also squanders a potentially brilliant dynamic. When the elder of the feral sisters are being psychoanalysed about the creature who kept them alive all this time, the psychiatrist posits that maybe the girl is in fact ‘Mama’ and that the beast is merely a product of her trauma. This tension between the supernatural and the psychological never comes to pass however, because we’ve already seen ‘Mama’ in the very first scene.

Finally, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s character is so needless awkwardly handled that it ruins some of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Coster-Waldau is a great actor, but aside from the first five minutes of the movie he’s given virtually nothing to do. He’s set up as a lead, our way into the plot, then, when the movie realises its Annabel’s story, bumps him off to hospital for the majority of the running time. He wakes just in time to have a dream, go to the woods, then happen to stumble into his partner in the forest so that he can be present at the climax. It’s contrived and really takes you out of the film just when you need to be invested most.

But still, I recommend Mama. It can’t escape the trappings of its genre, but it’s made with love, effort and genuine spark. It’s flawed, beautiful, frustrating and bold, with a bittersweet ending that’ll knock you for six. It also has two of the best performances from children that I have ever seen in a movie, horror or otherwise.

I’m glad to see it’s become a financial success. Not surprised in the slightest, but glad.


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