Movie review: Mama
Your nerves will wrap you into a pretzel, but sometimes the plot holes are just too distracting
Posted: March 20, 2013
Horror, horror in the wall. Sometimes, living with a ghost can drive you up the wall, but this young girl tries her best to deal with it.
Horror films work best when the situations they depict are somehow credible or can be seen as realistic. For the world's religious, The Exorcist was a visceral depiction, if not a confirmation, of their worst fears that evil is very real. In the same way, anyone who has lain awake at night, suspecting the sound of a swaying tree branch could be the sound of someone on that tree branch, would likely have had a point of entry for The Blair Witch Project.
Guillermo del Toro, who directed the fantastical Pan's Labyrinth, is the producer behind Mama, the début film of Argentine director Andrés "Andy" Muschietti. Mama has style and solid acting from its leads, but while the film is well put together, some genre clichés do pop up and spoil the experience precisely because they remind us this is just another horror film, instead of a truly captivating one that plays with our fears.
In 2008, at the beginning of the financial crisis, a banker goes on a murderous rampage and kills his former wife. He drives off with his two young daughters, but he veers off the road and the car nosedives into a tree. They survive and make their way to a small cottage in the forest, where he is killed by an unknown creature.
Five years later, the girls are found by a search party, but they are in such a bad condition they are barely recognizable, having eaten only cherries in all that time and now moving bestially from place to place, imitating the movements of a spider. There is a reason the 1973 version of The Exorcist cut the spider movements of the possessed Linda Blair: It is very unsettling to watch.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
With Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Daniel Kash
The girls' uncle, an illustrator who doesn't work very often, meets his nieces, and at first they refuse to believe he is not their father - in fact, he resembles his brother so much, the two characters are played by the same actor, Danish thespian Nicolaj Coster-Waldau.
This uncle, Luke, and his rocker girlfriend, Annabel (a black-haired Jessica Chastain), have little money and no prospects to start a family, but Luke wants to help the children get back on their feet, and with the help of a psychiatrist he and Annabel move into a large house in the lush suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.
But the girls have a secret. The creature that killed their father has come with them, and it is not in the mood for the girls to bond with a new family. Over time, we learn a whole back story to this supernatural being with arachnidlike tentacles who can transform into a mop of hair whose movements across the floor are uncanny and wholly unnerving.
This thing is what the girls call "Mama." Mama is obviously a substitute for their own mother, whom they barely knew, but somehow they know they are not supposed to tell anyone about her. And that is obviously a very stupid notion put forward by the screenwriter, as one would expect these girls, who have spent most of their lives in the forest with Mama, to talk about her and treat her as something completely normal.
There are others questions we never get answers to, like the whole premise of the climax, which sees Mama on a suicide mission with her adopted daughters, but there is no particular reason why she would have waited five years to do this. On the other hand, perhaps the screenwriter was trying to pre-emptively shield himself from criticism on this point by making Mama the ghost of a former mental patient, and therefore her behavior cannot be rationally explained. But that is just lazy screenwriting, as it leaves us with basic questions whose answers are not ambiguous but instead nonexistent.
We also get recurring examples of individuals who find it prudent to go to an abandoned house in the middle of the forest in the dead of night, even though the sun was shining just a few miles away. This happens not once but twice.
The film's use of generic horror visuals is effective, however, and the many scenes in which someone in the foreground is framed next to a great deal of empty space before the lights go out and then quickly go on again generate a significant amount of tension in the viewer, who invariably knows what is coming but every time reacts with a fright nonetheless.
The first half of Mama is not bad at all, perhaps because we don't really get to see the titular monster but are merely made aware of her presence. In the second half of the film, however, she appears more often, although these appearances are balanced by the symbol of moths that seem to follow her everywhere she goes - in particular, when she hides inside the walls.
Though Jessica Chastain is a wonderful actress, her character arc is a bit of a stretch, as it seems she has to stay put in order for her to accomplish the journey from rocker to Mother Theresa.
The film is far better than most other horror films, but its refusal to address some basic questions of plot makes it only partially successful. Perhaps these problems will be resolved in the likely event of a sequel.
André Crous can be reached at