A horror film with Guillermo del Toro attached surely attracts positive attention. His Spanish spoken 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth was a work of art. Furthermore, he directed many fine other works: Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II. However, Del Toro only acts as producer on Mama: the movie is actually the debut of Andrés Muschietti. It is based on a three minute short film Muschietti made in 2008. Was Del Toro right to attach his name to this production?
Mama starts with a business man, Jeffrey, that just killed his business partners and wife. Next up are his two young daughters: Victoria (3) and Lilly (1). He attempts to kill them in a cabin in the woods. However, his attempt is stopped by a guardian entity named Mama. After this brief intro, the opening credits start rolling, and several years the girls spent alone in the woods are depicted using childhood drawings. After this, we learn that Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas, is still actively searching for his two lost nieces five years later. The scriptwriters get some credit here for not using the “standard” middle class couple here to portray Lucas and his wife. Instead, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a struggling illustrator and his wife, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a rock chick. The couple are trying to have children. Predictably, the two girls are soon thereafter found in the cabin, living like animals. After a recovery period, the couple choose to take custody over them. In part, because the psychiatrist offers them a nice house to live in as happy family of four in return for an extended observation period. Needless to say: the “happy” part never really comes to fruition.
Mama combines elements of many contemporary horror films, notably The Ring, The Grudge and Paranormal Activity. The first half builds great suspense, as we see the girls adapting to their new environment. We learn that Mama still watches over them and protects them from harm. The strength of this part is what really is the strength of most good suspense horror movies: the scariest thing is that which we can not (fully) see. We are frequently exposed to the visual trick where a particular place or room seems safe, only to be populated by something scary a moment later. Although the filmmakers disappointingly rely on loud audio cues to scare the audience, the movie deserves credit for its excellent cinematography. There are several visually impressive scenes, like one where the two girls are playing in their room with Mama.
Unfortunately, the film collapses in the second half. The turning point is an out-of-place dream flashback experienced by Lucas that involves his dead brother. Having thrown in various elements of the genre movies mentioned, Muschietti is forced to fully reveal Mama and her motivations in the second half. Using fairly okay computer generated imagery, Mama is depicted as a rotting floating entity with long hair and fingers and a severely misshaped head. Why the two girls, Victoria and Lilly, remain so enthralled with Mama is not explained, as she does not seem to be particularly pleasant company. While the second part has some highlights, like an excellent indoor chase scene, they are few and far apart.
The finale leans strongly on the emotional bonds between the characters constructed throughout the movie. Unfortunately, these are so fragile, that it is rather hard to believe the choices those characters make. Furthermore, Mama’s back story, mostly explained through flashbacks, remains surprisingly thin. Though the filmmakers manage to avoid a really cliched ending, the one they end up with is not particularly satisfying either.
While Mama has an excellent first half for fans of the genre, with solid acting and good cinematography, it strongly overreaches in the second part and struggles with trivial continuity throughout, like the position of objects and day versus night. While it does offer satisfactory scene-to-scene suspense, it does not accumulate enough character depth to warrant the contrived ending. Throwing in flocks of moths and a sad baby story does not help, nor does the verbatim copying of elements and scenes from other genre movies. Unfortunate, as this could have been a much better film had more attention been paid to the overall back story, the motivation of the main characters and the narrative’s second and third acts.