VOD Review: Mama.
IT director Andres Muschietti turned his short horror film Mamá into a feature. It mostly works.
Under the aegis of Guilermo del Toro, Andres and Barabara Muschietti got the opportunity to expand upon the ideas in their tight horror short. For fans of ghost stories, a la The Conjuring, it delivers enough tension and creepy moments to warrant a watch. For those, like myself, looking to see how Muschietti developed as a director, it shows quite a bit of the techniques and tropes he brought to adapting King’s book about a famous creepy, killer clown. A few of the the horror elements feel a bit generic. A few of Muschietti’s idiosyncrasies jump out at you. Despite that, it’s a solidly made story of a vengeful spirit haunting two unfortunate children.
As we hear radio accounts of an investor shooting up his firm after the Great Recession wipes him out, we see a bloodied and battered man return to his luxurious home. Frantically, he gathers his two young daughters before driving off through the falling snow, into the woods. His mania causes him to crash his vehicle, but he is able to pull his two daughters free of the wreck and take shelter in a ramshackle cabin. At the end of his rope, he pulls a gun on the unsuspecting children, but a mysterious entity saves them. Five years pass.
Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the twin brother of the disturbed man, and his jaded girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain,) have bankrupted themselves looking for the lost girls. When the girls are stumbled upon in the woods, feral but still alive, Lucas and Annabel take them in. Unfortunately, the entity that saved them, Mama, follows the girls to their new home.
Proof of Concept.
My first big question was would the short scale up. It’s a bite-sized morsel, a flicker of an idea that derives most of its power from ambiguity. It doesn’t point concretely to a larger story. Luckily, the Muschiettis found some interesting clothes to hang on the skeleton of the short. The first section, which I think was the strongest, does a nice job of creating a backstory that makes sense. The homicidal breakdown caused by the economic collapse is culturally astute, and invests us in the fate of the two girls. Besides being pseudo-adopted by a motherly revenant, they’re also subjected to more grounded – and in many ways more sinister – horrors.
After an excellent title sequence that uses creepy illustrations to effectively obviate exposition (see, Midsommar, it can be done!) we pivot into a quasi-family thriller. Our two adult leads are good in their roles and good together. My one gripe is that they separate the two for much of the second half to provide a more apples-to-apples comparison between Jessica Chastain’s reluctant adoption of the girls and the ghost’s monomaniacal adoption of them. If you stripped out the appearances of the ghost, you’d get a reasonably tight psychological thriller. Seeing the traumatized and feral children constantly backslide into savagery, aided by the coping mechanism of some fictionalized mother figure that only existed in their desperate minds would be gruesomely effective. The film toys with this angle, but reveals its hand too early by showing Mama often.
Fan of the Genre.
It’s kind of a shame that the first two acts get scuttled by the film being a truly supernatural horror film. Instead of having some ambiguity about what happened to the father as he contemplates a murder-suicide with his daughters, we see Mama rip him a new one. Yup, this is definitely a ghost story with a specter who ain’t camera shy. It goes for a very straightforward haunting/possession story that is even less ambiguous than a Conjuring film. The backstory of how Mama came to be a spirit trapped in time looking for a child to adopt feels very genre-formulaic. Most of the weaker elements of the story feel like love letters to the genre, that border on fan fiction.
The psychologist who makes the girls his pet project starts off as a vaguely villainous fortune hunter, but morphs halfway through into one part Dr. Loomis from Halloween, one part the young priest from The Exorcist, and one part the protagonist of The Ring. There are lots of ideas, imagery, and riffs on well-worn horror tropes. Having seen how much horror memorabilia Muschietti scatters throughout his IT movies, you certainly get the feeling he’s a fan. Unfortunately, here it robs the story of tension and subtlety to essentially have a “horror movie stuff!” banner hanging in the background.
Bigger and Better?
Despite the “something borrowed, something ghoul” moments, I did end up liking Mama. It had a strong first half before tacking hard into standard, modern ghost story elements. The visuals are good, especially how well Muschietti films the children creeping around on all fours and appearing out of nowhere. Once again, the director excels at subtly guiding your field of vision so that you’re always looking for the scare but frequently surprised by its arrival. The acting is solid. Chastain starts a bit surly in a punk rock way that feels more at home in Green Room than a ghost story, but she quickly deepens the character. I enjoyed Coster-Waldau (more famously known as Jaime Lannister on GoT) in the dual roles of the demented dad and empathetic uncle. The CG effects for Mama are decent, once again showing a definite style that anyone who saw IT would recognize as a Muschietti creation.
The second act is less effective than the first, but mostly because it lacks ambiguity. It does a nice head-fake at the end, which helps the project to a sturdier landing. It’s not going to blow minds like an M. Night Shyamalan twist, but it avoids an overly sentimental moment and goes dark at just the right moment. Mama feels like two 45 minute movies joined at birth. If you can get over a clunky conjunction in the middle, both halves work decently within their own styles.