One of the more popular and subtle feints that a film’s marketing campaign can make nowadays is the infamous “presented by…” line in a trailer, as if to say that because the film is “presented by” a particular individual of some note, the project itself will share those selfsame qualities. In the case of Mama, the film is “presented by Guillermo Del Toro,” who essentially just serves as executive producer. Love or hate Del Toro, and there are plenty on both sides of that fence, it is hard to deny that he has crafted some intensely dark, twisted, and fascinating horror stories, each with their own unique vision. And as such, the trailers for Mama capitalized on that, presenting the film as a creepy, disturbing tale of a family haunted by a spectral terror not dissimilar to some of Del Toro’s works.
And in truth, that is essentially what Mama is. The plot, once we rid ourselves of some unnecessary opening exposition that peculiarly seeks to throw in 30 seconds of economic social commentary, is quite simple. Two young girls, lost after the horrific deaths of their parents, are suddenly found in an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods after five long years. The girls, feral, atavistic, dirty and animalistic and capable of only a single word (“Mama”), are taken in by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his punk rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) creating an offbeat, never-quite-comfortable new family unit. Things begin to go awry quickly as things begin going bump in the night, and the girls seem to never cozy to their new adoptive parents, instead playing with each other behind closed doors and talking to someone who does not appear to be there.
As you can likely surmise, during their time in the wild, the girls were saved by a mysterious and menacing spirit, that follows them to their new home and becomes violently and horribly jealous of their new protectors, and a series of hauntings and torments ensues. It’s all filmed in a familiar gloomy, dreary atmosphere, each scene veritably dripping with dread as the audience clutches the arms of their seats waiting for Mama to strike and for chaos and horror to descend upon Lucas and Annabel.
Mama features some quite solid performances — Coster-Waldau, continues to demonstrate that his range and performances in “Game Of Thrones” and films like Headhunters are not flukes, but indicative of a man of many faces. Here, he’s a quiet, contemplative, mournful man trying to make a family out of the ashes of a dead one, and he’s quite compelling. Festival and awards darling Chastain gamely plays the role of the reluctant girlfriend who loves her man just enough to go along with the plan, but not enough to actually turn herself into the mother figure he wants them to be (initially, anyway). Most remarkable are the two young girls, tiny Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) who is practical quadrupedal when they find her and who desperately doesn’t want to adapt to this new life and instead wants to return to the magical — if profoundly eerie and disturbing — embrace of the ghostly Mama, and her older sister Victoria, who slowly finds the reality of a conventional family unit to be more alluring than expected.
And it all comes so close to working. Yet Mama is undone by clunky, cliched writing and some truly terrible direction. Most unfortunately, the blame for this can pretty easily be laid on the shoulders of first-timer Andres Muschietti, who created the short film it’s based on, adapted the screenplay, and directed the full-length feature. The film is plagued by what can only be called over-direction, an inability to simply let the story unfold organically, but instead creating a series of increasingly ridiculous plot devices and set pieces that serve less as storytelling devices and more as laughable stumbling blocks. The film is full of moments, deliberately calamitous scenes where the characters encounter sweeping revelations or are confronted with new terrors. Yet it’s done so ham-fistedly and with such bombastic, blaring music that I found myself desperately wishing for a touch of subtlety. There’s also a long, drawn-out backstory about the origin of Mama itself, a plot point so trite and cliched that if you have any kind of horror acumen it would take but a moment to guess it — just think pregnancy, insane asylum, death. It’s not particularly complex, and yet the decidedly laborious discovery process just feels tired.
Then there’s the atmosphere and mood of the film. It definitely shows touches of Del Toro’s influence, oozing a grim dread at each turn, and filmed through a variety of increasingly blue lenses — if the film had gone on beyond it’s 100 minutes it would have been like watching the bottom of the sea. There’s nary a well-lit moment to be found, even in hospitals and psychiatrist offices. The therapist (who is himself an utterly ridiculous and clumsy expository device) tasked with helping the girls inexplicably meets with them in gloomy, dimly lit rooms, and throughout the film lights constantly flicker, and there’s an over-reliance on predictable jump scares. Worst of all, though, and I do mean worst, is the utterly horrendous CGI that serves to immediately and completely yank the viewer out of the story, allowing for nothing other than the glaring sensation that you are watching something completely artificial and incredibly poorly rendered. Mama herself is so lamely and lazily rendered once she’s finally revealed that it makes the viewer yearn for the moments when she was simply a hazy shadow flitting across the background or a gooey tar-like substance bleeding from a wall.
The sad thing is that there is a potentially wonderful story to be told here. The idea of telling a tale of terror using the framework of a fragile and anxious family dynamic presents a number of options, and this spectral protector battling the new parent-figures for the love of their charges is a somewhat novel notion. The exploration of that dynamic juxtaposed with a moody horror picture creates a great many opportunities for both scares and interesting, intelligent storytelling. Unfortunately, Mama is a near-perfect example of a film that is written and directed right into the ground, with fine performances that are promptly overshadowed by its silly and cliched horror trappings. I found myself yearning for the end, which was actually the worst part of the experience, as the film’s melodramatic and not even remotely scary climax just goes on and on and on. Someday, a film maker will remember how deftly stories of family and loss were weaved into works like Poltergeist and The Omen and even some of Del Toro’s modern works, and use some of those tools to create another film that preys on the fears and anxieties that are born out of familial bonds. However, Mama is decidedly not that film.