Guillermo del Toro "presents" MAMA. What does this mean? I have no idea. He's listed as one of the executive producers but I doubt he had much to do with the making of it. More like he just allowed his name to be slapped on the posters to help promote it. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Basically the equivalent of an "I approve this message" stamp on a political ad.
With all due respect, del Toro may want to be a bit more picky in the future with his endorsements. I wish I could find some nice things to say about MAMA but I'm coming up short. I walked in knowing almost nothing except del Toro was somehow involved and it starred Jessica Chastain. That's a decent pedigree. This could be good, right?
Wrong. MAMA is an example of what I call a "cat-in-the-cupboard" movie and a bad example at that. A rote horror film where all the scares are dependent on things jumping into the frame accompanied by a loud shriek on the soundtrack. This is usually preceded by prolonged strains of creepy music baiting you that something scary is about to happen. It's the horror equivalent of the Barney character from How I Met Your Mother saying "Wait for it..."
I knew something was off from the first scene. A distraught stockbroker (I guess, it's not clear) has killed his partners and his wife. He kidnaps his two young daughters and drives erratically through a snowy mountain pass for no apparent reason and the car plunges over a cliff. All three survive and traipse through the woods until they come across a small, deserted cabin. Once inside, dad decides on the murder/suicide route but before he can go through with it, he's attacked by a ghost that drags him away.
Even before the ghost appears, nothing about this situation feels real or grounded. Who are these people? What's going on? We're meant to be confused, since this is just the cold open. But it's hard not to be bothered by the lack of attention paid to character development. This problem will plague the rest of the story.
Five year later, crazy dad's twin brother is still searching for the girls, who've been missing ever since. These are more details that feel off--does he really expect to find them alive after so long? And how could the wrecked car be so hard to find, given that the accident occurred not that far from a densely populated area? MAMA brushes past these details with the wave of a hand. The introduction of the girls signals what kind of movie this is going to be. Yes, the poor, starving little girls are used for jump scares, scurrying around the cabin creepily and popping into frame constantly. They are not villains of the movie but who cares! We needs more jump scares!
No one questions just how these two little girls survived on their own in the woods for so long. The rescuers find an enormous pile of cherry pits and that's it. Girls have been eating cherries for five years. Case closed. Of course, we know the answer--girls have been raised by a ghost. It's hard out there for a single ghost mom, so the girls' deteriorated condition is understandable.
Despite their NELL-like existence, the girls are able to readapt to society somewhat. The older sister, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), has an easier time than Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who remains creepy and eats moths and shit. The two live with the twin brother of crazy dad and his girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain). Annabel is not the "mama" of the title. "Mama" is the ghost and she's pissed. She follows her two adopted daughters into suburbia and that's when the trouble begins.
Annabel is just a punk rock chick with tattoos. At first, she's not too thrilled to be a surrogate mom to these two troubled kids but eventually she warms up to them. Or at least that's what we're supposed to get from it. This doesn't actually occur in the film. One scene she is annoyed with the girls, next scene she likes them and Victoria is saying "I love you." I guess the bonding scene was left on the cutting room floor.
All the characters in MAMA are ciphers. They are given one personality trait (rocker chick, sensitive bearded artist, etc.) and never allowed to develop. The movie is shockingly low on dialogue. Whenever we're in a scene not designed for jump scares, co-writer/director Andres Muschietti is itching to get back to a set piece where someone is staring blankly at a closet wondering what's inside. Good horror movies know you need to amp up the suspense, build to a good scare and create an atmosphere of dread and menace. MAMA often feels like a string of cheap jolts strung together with no sense of rhythm or pace.
There's also a psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash, resembling an evil Tony Shalhoub), working with the girls. Usually in these stories, the rational doctor tries to explain away strange occurrences through science and only very gradually comes to accept that supernatural tomfoolery is afoot. Dreyfuss has exactly ONE line of dialogue where he suggests Victoria may have multiple personalities. This theory is quickly forgotten about and Dreyfuss is onboard the ghost train not long thereafter.
Both he and the twin brother/uncle character are equally worthless. When the girls are first rescued, they mistake him for their dad. That's a creepy idea that's brought up and immediately dropped, never mentioned again. Uncle is soon attacked by "Mama" and put into a coma, leaving Annabel alone with the kids. (The only reason he doesn't die is that it would be too unbelievable for the girlfriend to get custody of these girls.) There's also a mean aunt character who exists for one purpose. Because even in PG-13 horror, you need a body count.
There are so many things wrong with MAMA but the biggest is just how empty the whole experience is. Very, very late in this (mercifully) short film, the idea that the girls might be divided in loyalty between Annabel and "Mama" is introduced and AGAIN, nothing really comes of it (except the stupid ending, which I won't spoil because there's nothing to spoil). This simple idea could have provided some much needed subtext. But it's undone by the shallowness of the writing and the need to have constant jump scares. "Mama" is constantly poking her nose out and scaring the girls--why does she do this? Why would either girl feel any loyalty to her?
Jessica Chastain is having a good month, being nominated for an Oscar for the second year in a row. I doubt this dud will derail her much but I don't think she needs to bother writing an acceptance speech for the 2014 Oscars (unless she has another film coming out). She's a great actress, which makes it positively maddening to see how little she is given to do here. (I would also like to suggest she avoid short, dark hair from now on. You're a redhead, girl. Stick with that look.)
I can appreciate a good, simple horror movie, even one that has a few too many cats jumping out of cupboards. What I cannot abide is this lazy piece of tripe featuring not one but TWO scenes where a ghostly encounter is revealed to be a dream! For reals? We're still falling back on that one in 2013? And characters who insist on searching creepy old cabins with flashlights in the dead of night? Even when they arrived at said cabin in daylight? No, I say to you, no! The line must be drawn here! This far! No farther!
MAMA opens on Friday. There's another movie with Jessica Chastain now playing at your local theater. See that one instead.