Once upon a time… horror films knew how to consistently land their third act. The original Black Christmas, The Exorcist and John Carpenter’s The Thing build tension and escalate the scares without falling apart by the end, but you don’t even need to go back that far to find ones that get it right thanks to (relatively) recent movies like [REC], The Mist and The Innkeepers. But more than any other genre a lot of horror films from the last few years simply drop the ball before the credits roll.
Andrés Muschietti‘s Mama continues that trend unfortunately, but truth be told its grip is pretty damn tenuous from the beginning.
After Victoria and Lily’s father kills their mother and some co-workers he takes the girls on a drive that ends with a crash in the woods. The trio wander the cold, desolate forest before finding an old, seemingly deserted cabin and settling in for the night. Father of the year doesn’t make it to morning. Five years later the now feral girls are found and returned to their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), but something else has come home with them and it’s not too keen on sharing custody.
It’s not much of a mystery as to what this third wheel is as it’s clear early on that this ghostly woman who the girls call “mama” has taken a protective interest with plans on eliminating any competition for their affections. Annabelle, by contrast, is a tattooed bassist in a rock band with no interest in being a mother. Her dormant maternal instincts start to kick in though as the situation grows stranger and far more dangerous for all involved.
Muschietti, who adapts from his own short film, manages some truly creepy set pieces and moments early on thanks to some smartly staged shots. Brief or intentionally blurry glimpses of mama tease a horrifying menace, and the first appearance of the girls in the cabin is perfectly terrifying. But mama’s wad gets blown way too soon and with way too much CGI. We start seeing her too frequently, too clearly and she loses her ability to scare. By the time her mess of hair crawls across the floor like a motorized wig escaped from the set of a J-horror film the movie has lost all of its power.
Equally damaging are two subplots involving a duplicitous and dumb psychiatrist and the girls’ aunt who’s seeking custody. Both are distracting, obvious and poorly-written filler lacking smarts or necessity with the doctor in particular existing more as an exposition machine than anything resembling a legitimate character. His research in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like warehouse is particularly laughable. The aunt’s final scenes are even funnier.
It’s not all bad though as in addition to the handful of chills we get two impressive performances from the girls. Megan Charpentier and the mostly silent Isabelle Nelisse deliver real emotion, both fear and affection, and lend the film its only weight. The ending is loaded with issues, but it deserves a little credit at least for a fairly daring choice you don’t often see in American horror (especially of the PG-13 variety).
The movie is being sold on producer Guillermo Del Toro‘s name which is odd seeing as it stars one of the most acclaimed actresses of the year, but hey, I’m no marketing wiz. To be fair Chastain doesn’t do anything here that would make you think she was an Academy Award contender. The real problem though is that it’s continuing to dilute the “Del Toro” brand. He’s not there yet, but another one or two duds like this and he may as well change his name to “Wes Craven presents.”
Mama is a step up from Del Toro’s last production, the lame Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake, but it’s a baby step at best. A few wonderfully creepy scenes early-on tease a better film than is actually delivered as poor writing and a way too visible monster smother any hope of further terror. Maybe a short film would work better…
The Upside: Creepy and scary visuals; the two girls are pretty fantastic; mildly ballsy ending
The Downside: Silly and obvious subplots; third act falls beneath the weight of explanations, CGI and stupidity
On the Side: Co-writer Neil Cross is the creator and lead writer of the very cool British series Luther