“Mama” could be a perfect example of what can happen to a talented man if the circumstances are right. If you think about it, 4 years ago Andrés Muschetti most likely did not even dream about a possibility of being handed a multimillion dollar budget to make a full feature film. Add also the fact that he would get to direct one of the most promising (and now recognized thanks to her phenomenal role in “Zero Dark Thirty”) actresses of her generation – Jessica Chastain – and top it all off with a persona like Guillermo del Toro leading his project from the producer’s end. If he had said he would become a successful Hollywood director by 2013, no-one would have believed him. Well, now they have to…
Directorial debut is a risky endeavor Someone’s trusted your talent enough to put his money and reputation on the line in order for you to have a chance to shine. The stakes are high, because no-one knows you and the only person that people would recognize would be the producer who paid for your party. If you’re lucky enough and your script is good, or if maybe people who want you to succeed pull some strings, someone relatively known will get signed to star in your thing. But that’s it. If you cock it up, their reputations will be damaged, you’ll piss in someone’s resumé (let’s face it, how many actors have at least one performance in a dodgy movie under their belts… all of them?), the studio and the producers will lose money and you will never get a second chance, because life’s a female dog.
Fortunately enough, Muschetti managed to woo enough people to make his debut a commercial success and now he’s already signed to direct his next film. Much to my disappointment, however, he failed to woo me. Well, he did take me on a good date, but he managed to ruin everything before a good-night kiss. I’m getting ahead of myself…
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “Mama” when I sat down in the cinema. I love a good horror story and I know a bad one when I see it. So, when the end credits rolled and the lights went back on I knew full well. It was not great, it was not bad… It was fine. And that is not good enough for a genre movie.
If you have seen the short film, on which “Mama” is based (watch here) you’d know that its power lied within the uncertainty. We didn’t know who mama was, we didn’t know what it wanted, and we only knew that it was there and that it wanted something from the girls. And that’s where the horror comes from. This is what subconsciously fuels our fear – not knowing. So, the minute I learned that “Mamá” was being adapted into a full-grown feature horror, I was intrigued. I wanted to experience the same horror in its final form. I think it was a reasonable assumption on my part because the short film is merely a sequence without a story, so there must have been something interesting behind it worth translating into the language of film.
“Mama” basically tells a story of two little girls (3 and 1 years old) whose father, after murdering their mom, kidnaps them with intent to kill them as well. He finds a cabin in the woods somewhere near Richmond (Virginia) to be a perfect place to put an end to his family in a poetic way, however, before he gets the chance to kill his defenseless children, he is killed by some sort of entity (that is definitely not human nor animal). Fast forward five years; the girls are found in the same cabin by their uncle – father’s (twin?) brother. Having lived five years in the wilderness they appear dehumanized to say the least. They don’t speak, but growl and moan instead, they run on all fours and they have almost completely forgotten about who they used to be. The uncle (together with his somehow reluctant girlfriend – Jessica Chastain) decides to take the challenge of giving the girls the home and family they deserve with a hope that they would learn how to be human again. The couple soon start to suspect that along with the girls someone else has entered their lives. Someone only the girls can see and refer to as ‘mama’.
That sounds like a perfectly ok horror story, doesn’t it? We have a house, a couple, children who are scary in their own wicked way and the unknown evil that will do everything to keep the girls to itself. I have to say that throughout the bulk of the movie I was very positive about it. The mood was just right and even without the jump-scares (that are still quite abundant in the genre) I felt terrified most of the time. The beautifully portrayed scenery amplified the horror perfectly. The girls (especially the younger one) made me feel uneasy with their very convincing acting and Jessica Chastain took the lead in a very subtle way without overshadowing anything and anyone. I loved the way Muschetti managed to incorporate the sequence from the short movie and I loved how ‘Mama’ was portrayed. Her disfigured, inhuman body and most diabolical movement made me feel uncomfortable even after I got used to her.
That’s what usually happens, right? Be it “Child’s play”, “Nightmare on Elm Street”, or anything else for that matter, after the initial terror, sooner or later, we grow accustomed to that scary little bad guy. And by the end of the movie, we are perfectly ok with it. I have to say that Mama continued her reign of terror right until the very ending – right until the climax.
Because it’s the ending, that is the weakest spot of “Mama”. You see, we could have had a decent horror story that was paced rather well, the acting was fine, the mood was perfect – it was terrifying. But somewhere along the way I started to suspect that no-one had a clear idea how to end it.
In the current climate, if you want a horror to be remembered as something more than just a run-of-the-mill shocker, you need to be somewhat creative. It’s not the 90’s anymore and you can’t just get on a torture porn or found-footage band wagon, because there’s so many of them. The haunted house and ghost stories have been exploited ad nauseam in all possible ways, so it is really difficult to come up with something new, at least from the point of view of a story.
I think that nowadays a proper mood is your safest bet. If you make your picture damn scary and/or gut-wrenching people will remember it. “Mama” had all the chances to succeed in that department, but this potential has been squandered. The minute the film started to focus around investigating who Mama was and what she wanted, it started to descend down a one-way street towards a nasty cliché. I really preferred not to know everything. I loved the mystery. But when it was solved and everything was uncovered – it was all gone. The king was naked.
If I ever see “Mama” again, it will not be the same. I can’t be afraid of it any more. What started out as a promising take on the ghost story (that was not revolutionary in a conventional sense) with everything you’d possibly want from a movie like that, ended up just another pointless shocker killed by its own ending. I have to say that as of now, I’m still rather disappointed with “Mama”. It’s a perfect example of how to shoot oneself in the foot by trying to explain too much. Some things need not be said. Some things need to be left alone. I don’t even want to know what would have happened in the story had it been 20 minutes longer.
All in all, I think I could turn my blind eye at the sad excuse for a climax “Mama” had to offer. It delivered very well when it comes to the atmosphere. The scares were genuine and the story – while it could have strayed further away from the beaten path – was good enough to be able to stand on its own two legs within the genre. Sadly, the lack of experience reared its ugly head eventually and murdered the film with anticlimactic plot development that stemmed from a terrible mistake of trying to explain to much. Knowing that I can only give the guy a pat on the back and say ‘good effort’. Next time round I won’t be merciful.