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There are hundreds, if not thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of phobias out there, but looking at modern horror you wouldn’t guess that there are more than five. Director Andy Muschietti is bringing back one of the most popular recent ones in Mama, and though he does his best to avoid the overly familiar notes of the genre, at the end of the day it’s just the same song we’ve heard hundreds of times before.
The story begins with a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) killing his wife and kidnapping his own daughters, Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse). After the trio gets stranded and finds a cabin in the woods, the father dies under mysterious circumstances and the girls are left to survive alone. Five years later the dad’s twin brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) finally manages to find the children – who are now in a feral state - and rescue them. Despite his punk rock girlfriend’s (Jessica Chastain) objections, they move as a family into a home where a psychiatrist (Daniel Cash) can study the children. But what they don’t know is that the mysterious spirit that protected the girls in the cabin, referred to as “Mama,” has followed them.
Yes, just months after the release of both The Possession and Sinister comes yet another movie about spooky children and the demons that haunt them, and much like the previous titles Mama fails to deliver on any originality. The film reuses tropes like escaped mental patients and grieving mothers and old ladies who know about the spirit world and does so with zero enthusiasm or creativity. The result is a story that’s boring and tame, spiced up only occasionally with cheap jump scares, all of them preceded by violent strings in the score that warn you they’re coming. Instead of creating any kind of tension the plot just moves from scene to scene, with characters picking up hints about the mystery and hiding them so that it all can all pay off in the end. The way the story moves is so predictable that by the time the reveals begin you’re not invested, because it’s all been so clear from the start.
In some cases the film even goes as far as to undercut the scares it does have, specifically by overusing CGI. When Victoria and Lily are first discovered in the woods and have gone completely feral they’re creepy enough on their own, walking around on all fours and scampering and jumping around the cabin. Any eeriness to it, however, is totally removed when the children move in a completely unnatural way – clearly helped by visual effects – despite the fact that there’s nothing unnatural about them. The wild kids offer the movie an opportunity at real-world based scares, but instead it’s all just blurred in with the rest.
In a completely different way the CGI hurts the spooky character of Mama as well. Usually seen crawling out of walls/floors/ceilings and/or floating off the ground, it’s not hard to understand why Muschietti felt that he had to digitize the film’s villain, but it stands out in a bad way. Each time the spirit appears it’s distracting how detached it is from the rest of the scene. The film isn’t completely without moments where the Mama effect works – most notably in the final scenes – but they’re few and far between.
Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro notably served as an executive producer on Mama, but given the extent of his knowledge about the genre it’s hard to see exactly what he sees in it. While it has its positive points and is better than a good cross-section of the titles that make up the landscape of modern horror, the film is still trope-driven, boring and completely forgettable.