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Review: Mama told me not to come

Posted by on January 18, 2013 – 12:03 am

Mama© 2013 Universal Pictures
With a handful of excellent films under his belt, writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro has enough clout within the horror genre that his involvement in a film usually means a high-quality cinematic experience. Unfortunately, with his new executive produced film Mama, the del Toro stamp of approval does not live up to expectations.

Mama was inspired by the 2008 short film of the same title (watch it here) and both the short and long versions are directed by Andrés Muschietti and co-written with Barbara Muschietti. The original short film is sufficiently creepy, but while the director’s first full-length feature has great moments of unsettling eeriness, his lack of experience shows through on the undisciplined remainder of the film.

This movie tells the story of two orphaned little girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), who are left in a deserted cabin, deep in the woods. (I’ll leave out spoilers regarding how they got there.) They survive in isolation for five years – living off of cherries – until they are discovered by scouts that their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has paid to search for them.

The girls are placed in a mental institution and now act as wild animals, skittish and afraid of other people, and when the older girl is asked how they managed to survived, she only references “Mama.”  Their psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), thinks that Mama is a figment of the girls’ imagination that they have created in order to help them survive in the wilderness.

Mama© 2013 Universal Pictures

After a time, the girls are sent to live with their Uncle Lucas and his rocker-chick girlfriend, Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, who is almost unrecognizable from her recent Golden Globe winning role in Zero Dark Thirty. It doesn’t take long until the jealous and otherworldly Mama makes an appearance and wants her little girls back.

Where did the Mama wraith-thing come from? Why is she so malevolent? How can she be stopped? It’s all somewhat spelled out eventually, but as the film unfolds it becomes more and more discombobulated; and by the end it is almost completely nonsensical.

This could have been a very good and original ghost story and the Muschiettis have a nice concept and the technical abilities to frighten an audience; they have a very good cast in Chastain and the two little girls and some decent special effects, but they just didn’t bring the story together in a cohesive manner.

Additionally, this would have been a much better film if they had not shown the Mama monster so soon (or at all). You see the creature (at least partially) from the opening act, so there is never doubt that she/it exists; and yet so much time (and film) is wasted while the other characters play catch up with the audience. The filmmakers could have saved a bundle on unnecessary special effects if they had just played on the audience’s fear of the unknown instead of being in your face with the monster from the beginning. Besides, the feral kids were creepy enough just on their own.

Mama© 2013 Universal Pictures
You have to suspend disbelief to a certain extent with any movie, and especially with a genre horror film, but much more attention should have been paid to logic in this movie. There are way too many instances of incredulity, not in that we’re dealing with the supernatural, but in the way that the details of the story are told on a real world level. For instance, how are Lucas (on foot) and Annabel (driving) able to miraculously find each other on a forest road, at night, in the middle of nowhere – at just the right time?

There are plenty of delightfully macabre moments in Mama, but I was very disappointed by the overall film. There is mercifully no gore in this movie, which was a big plus and something different for a horror film of this era; I just wish they had shown that same discipline with the special effects and devoted more time to creating a stronger narrative. Grade: 5/10