Directed by Andres Muschietti under executive producer Guillermo del Toro, Mama owes its conception to Muschietti’s 2008 short of the same name. The film works to stretch the short’s premise across all 100 of its minutes, but ultimately has little more to offer and maybe even less to say.
Mama’s not a bad film. I’m even willing to give it some grace for not being Texas Chainsaw 3D. But it’s ineffective. Let’s consider the transition made from short (here) to full-length feature film. Short films can end anywhere conceivably, and Muschietti’s did – concluding on a shot of the children fleeing in terror as the titular ghost sprints in pursuit of her kin. It’s creepy and atmospheric. In a full-length film, it’s a sequence in a scene. And in piling on layers and backing themselves into corners, Mama‘s creative minds lose their way.
An unnecessarily complicated premise that muddies the rest of the picture, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are found alive in a cabin after being missing and presumed dead for five years. Their father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of House Lannister) had gone postal, murdering his coworkers and his estranged wife before fleeing with his daughters into the woods. The entity the film calls Mama dispatches of dad rather quickly, raising the children until they’re discovered by their Uncle Lucas, again played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (again, of House Lannister).
Muschietti wrings the creepiest mileage out of those kids, feral and walking on all fours when they’re rediscovered. A combination of CG and practical, that atmospheric reintroduction to the kids is the finest and most original scene in all the film. They’re cleaned up and placed in the care of Lucas and his punkish, rock-star girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
Chastain’s Annabel is fully realized, perhaps more Billy Joe Armstrong than Sid Vicious – though a Cthullu-looking (likely a squid, but still) sleeve tattoo goes a long way in endearing her to my heart. She’s still a rudimentary character, uncomfortable in her new role, but also putting on the same airs most personalities of this ilk do. Of course her heart eventually warms to the kids, of course she assumes the role of caretaker full-tilt. Chastain plays heroine well and in truth hers in one of the many inoffensive performances in the film.
If your movie’s about a ghost woman terrorizing the people trying to keep her from her brood, that ghost woman better damn well work. Unfortunately, Mama doesn’t. One scene in particular, where Chastain lies in fright as Mama paws at her from under the bed, is effectively scary. Without that scene, Mama is a convoluted CG mess that reveals herself, and her deficiencies, far too often.
Many of Mama’s issues stem from ghost stories being a tough subgenre to crack in general. Werewolves have silver bullets, vampires have stakes, zombies bullets to the head. How do you resolve a haunting (without proton packs)? Too many films use the old “Let’s make the ghost feel better,” approach. Mama’s no different, as the end becomes a race to spare the daft old bat’s feelings.
The film gets tedious when you realize you’ve seen this all before. Save for a bugfuck of a finale that offers little in the way of resolution (or good judgment), Mama’s content to ride its premise and some admittedly great atmosphere into the ground. Don’t get it twisted; Mama is mid-level PG-13 horror – a polished if all-too-pedestrian ghost story that suggests a short film is oftentimes better off staying a short film. It’s not awful, it’s not even bad, it just is.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars