Review: Mama (2013)

Mama - 2013 - 1

Director: Andrés Muschietti
Screenwriters: Neil Cross, Bárbara Muschietti & Andrés Muschietti
Based on Mamá, a short film by Andrés Muschietti (see 2nd video below)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet & Morgan McGarry
Runtime: 100 min // Certificate: 15

I guess it’s symptomatic of the state of most modern horror that not even Mama’s executive producer Guillermo del Toro – the man responsible for the beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth – can rescue it from pitiful mediocrity. Based on his own short film of the same name, Andrés Muschietti’s debut feature is a film that promises rather a lot in its first act but soon gets bogged down in its near religious determination to adhere to all of its genre’s well-worn norms, thus resulting in an experience that offers little more than tedious predictability.

Like most post-millennium ghost stories of its ilk, Mama’s main problem is its over-reliance on jump-scares at the expense of actual horror. It tells the strange tale of two young girls – Lilly (Nélisse) and Victoria (Charpentier at 8, McGarry at 3) – who are forced to raise themselves (or not…) for five years in an old log cabin when their Father commits suicide. When they are finally discovered by two men on the payroll of their Father’s twin, Lucas (Coster-Waldau), they are both suffering from severe dissociative disorder. Furthermore, both girls claim that for five years they were protected by a being known only as “Mama”. After some legal wrangling, Lucas and his partner Annabel (Chastain) are awarded custody, albeit under the supervision of Dr Dreyfuss (Kash), the girls’ psychiatrist. As Dreyfuss examines the girls, he starts to question his initial hypothesis that “Mama” is an invention and begins to wonder if maybe there is something out there, watching over the girls.

The main issue here is that the audience is in on the game from the start. We know that “Mama” exists because we see her in the first few minutes and, as such, it isn’t exactly exciting to watch the characters learn – slowly and tediously – what we already know. What might have been a psychological thriller, or perhaps even a simple mystery story, instead turns into what is colloquially known as a “slow-burner” (read; a dull, empty film). Stuff happens – most of it irrelevant – while the characters abandon their critical faculties and throw common sense to the wind, yet the audience is completely excluded from the story. How can we be expected to give a shit about the characters or the plot when we already know that Mama is real? Almost an hour is spent watching them realise that something odd is happening, by which point I’d long stopped caring.

However, that’s not the film’s greatest flaw. No, what prevents Mama from being anything more than your typically hollow, post-2000 horror film is that it is mind-numbingly boring. It is devoid of both tension and drama, which is a shame because the first fifteen minutes or so are generally pretty good. The idea is simple but, in the hands of a better writer / director, it might have been effective. Adherence to classic horror tropes can be fun when handled correctly – namely with at least a part of your tongue in your cheek – but Mama takes itself so seriously that you can’t help but laugh. It conforms to the audience’s expectations to such a terrible degree that it doesn’t even fulfil the basic obligations of a horror film; it isn’t scary, it isn’t interesting and it isn’t entertaining.

Mama - 2013 - 2

Having said that, I don’t think Mama is a total write-off. It’s certainly not the worst horror film released in 2013 (though it’s far from the best) and while it might be generic and predictable, one has to give some credit to the manner in which Muschietti creates a consistent atmosphere, and to the performances of Charpentier and Chastain. For all of its jump-scares it is at least a film that attempts to create fear through its story, however badly it might fail in that aim. The central premise might not be original, but it at least shows promise. Fair enough, the promise is ultimately unrealised though one must be thankful for small blessings… Furthermore, the decision to hinge most of the drama on Chastain pays off because she’s a great actor. I’m not convinced she pulls off the “rock-chick” persona (she seems far more comfortable in the role of the guardian) but her performance is decent and she makes her character likeable, if not exactly engaging.

Mama is everything I was expecting, though that’s not really saying much. It does what every film of its type does; it turns out the lights, throws the occasional ghost at the screen, uses sounds to generate atmosphere, holds back on character development and ultimately fails to engage its audience in any real way. It might appeal to a certain horror fan and hey, at least it doesn’t resort to found-footage, so I won’t write it off completely but, for me, it was a pretty dull waste of 100 minutes.

Maybe watch it for Jessica Chastain (though let’s face it, she’s been much better in other films) if you must but on the whole, unless you’re a Silent Hill / Paranormal Activity fan, I think this is one you should avoid…