By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse and Daniel Kash
You can’t deny Guillermo Del Torro’s efforts to bring his brand of visual Spanish horror out to the mainstream. His own Pan’s Labyrinth is an almost flawless nightmarish fantasy. He is also the man who co-wrote and directed Blade 2, by far the best in the series. And, anyone who has read his series of vampire novels knows the guy has a vision that gets under your skin and won’t leave for many nights at a time. Every one of his producing efforts, from The Orphanage to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, have moments of brilliance. Yet, when looking at them as wholes, they each are tales containing pieces with very noticeable flaws. And, Mama, based on a 2008 Spanish short, unfortunately does not break this string. At times scary but never frightening, Mama succeeds at bringing horror to very human levels (the feeling of helplessness during a financial crisis is very real). However, as people in the film get closer, we feel more separated from the horror at hand. To make matters worse, as the terrifying title character’s mantra becomes clearer, so does our separation from the material. And in the end, Mama really becomes an average, run of the mill horror film. However, one cannot deny the presence of its star, who is rapidly transitioning from an actress to watch to full-blown superstar.
Director Andres Muschietti, making his big screen debut, does do a magnificent job of setting the film up with an admittedly effective introduction to all the characters. A father in financial crisis takes his wife and kids into the woods to murder them. After the wife is killed, a spiritual entity known as Mama intervenes and the kids get away. Four years later, the kids are found by their uncle (Waldau) and Annabel, his goth guitarist girlfriend (a full sleeve tattooed Chastain). Predictably, Annabel is reluctant to go along with the plan to take the understandably emotionally disturbed kids in. But, as Mama gets jealous and makes her presence known, she is eventually forced into strong protective mother mode. What I will give the film, again, is that this aspect of the story is handled very, very well. Annabel’s change of heart is gradual and feels real. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this part is played by the nuanced Chastain. Proving to be about as eclectic an actress as there is (in the last couple years she was in the very different The Help and Zero Dark Thirty), Chastain sinks her teeth into this one just as well as she did those other roles. Like Katie Holmes in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Chastain’s character is forced into a situation that requires her to be stronger than she ever was. However, unlike Holmes, I think Chastain pulls off this what could be seen as clichéd role very well. And, we feel for her position of having to strengthen her will in order for them all to survive. In fact, as a whole, the entire family, containing Waldeau, Charpentier and Nelisse, are very easy to root for. And, all aspects of the danger this family goes through makes the emotional aspects of this increasingly noticeable human horror effective.Unfortunately, where Mama falters is in its overall horror. Save for the first scene and an extremely effective nightmare sequence, Mama eventually moves itself into a trap of conventions. As is to be expected in today’s time of PG-13 horror, there are a lot of jump scares. There are pointless flashback scenes filmed in an oh so tired herky-jerky motion, and of course the placement of a predictable harbinger character that gives a melodramatic speech about ghosts & their unresolved conflict. It is a formula that has increasingly become something I have no interest in, and anyone looking to be scared out of their seats are going to be slightly disappointed (in fact the screening I was at brought on more laughter than gasps). To make matters worse, an aspect of horror that has always had an effective hold on me (possession) is handled poorly and has no real payoff. All of these traps should have been caught in the scripting stage, because as it played out onscreen, I was finding myself checking my watch more than what was under my seat.
This is an interesting film in that the acting, one of the biggest complaints about the worst horror movies, is Mama‘s strongest suit. Chastain is once again so endearing that it is impossible not to root for her to come out on top. Yet, one cannot help but see Mama‘s flaws. Full of great ideas and effective imagery, Mama falters under the weight of horror clichés. I enjoy Del Torro’s intention of introducing this style of visual and involving horror out in the increasingly stale American mainstream. But even the most hardcore Del Torro fan (of which I am) has to admit that while the acting on display here is top-notch, the way events unfold in an increasingly non effective way the longer it goes on are not. When does his Pacific Rim come out again?
3 out of 5