Ever since the enormous success of The Ring in 2002 there has been a sudden resurgence in the PG-13 horror film. From The Others to Insidious, most of these films are mysteries at heart, with trumped up visuals and sound design that make them look and feel like adult horror films. However, it is the mystery and the protagonist's unraveling of it that gives each of these films their narrative thrust.
This core mystery structure is also at the heart of Andrés Muschietti’s feature-length version of his short film Mama. In this case, the mystery surrounds the identity of who or what is the titular character of Mama.
Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter) stars as Annabel, an irresponsible, rock band bassist, with a love of mascara and tattoos, whose artist boyfriend, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), has made a startling discovery. Lucas’ two nieces have returned after disappearing five years prior when their father, who murdered their mother, kidnapped them and crashed his car off a mountain road. In his manic state, Lucas’ brother attempted to murder the young girls, Victoria and Lily, only to be stopped by some kind of unseen supernatural force.
The girls, having now returned to civilization, have become feral savages (cue the creepy children imagery) and call out to their “spiritual protector,” whom they refer to as “Mama.” It isn’t until Lucas and Annabel obtain custody of the children that the mysterious presence, Mama, begins act out due to what is assumed to be jealousy over the girls’ new parenting arrangement.
There are a number of elements in Mama that serve to elevate it far above the typical dreck that is released into theaters in January. The real standout in the film is Muschietti’s sense of dark humor, as exhibited in his off-the-wall shot selection. This is best on display in a scene that sets up a diptych where Chastain’s Annabel slowly creeps down a hallway on the left side of the screen, towards the sounds of what audiences are to assume are girls playing tug, while screen-right the girls play with Mama in their bedroom.
Mama can be terrifying at times, often in a way that is humorous upon reflection, as it delights in jump-scares and explorations through rooms that, also upon further reflection, probably could have benefitted from having the lights turned on. Before to long, the wild world that the girls once inhabited, mold, moths and all, has crept into the domestic lives of Annabel and Lucas. Mama’s most effective scares and thrills come from around corners and from brief glimpses of the wispy, dirty villainess.
However, other scripting problems quickly begin to detract from the power of these scares. For example: In The Ring, Naomi Watts' character was compelled to chase after the supernatural because her death was imminent. She had no other option but to push forward without looking back. Annabel’s motivations aren’t as clear or as forward thinking. Instead she is left to react to the rapidly deteriorating environment around her. So, while Jessica Chastain is a brilliant actress and turns in a solid performance here, her character’s motivations and actions grow increasingly silly and questionable when she doesn’t take dramatic action – like moving to a different house – when murderous and terrifying actions are occurring around her.
The film seems to rely on the notion that it is a horror film to justify these questions instead of finding a reason for characters to act this way. Whether it be the blizzard in The Shining or Alien’s Nostromo, there is always a way to answer this essential question posed by most haunted house films.
Where Mama really begins to fall apart though is when the character is fully revealed and her rather simple mystery is unraveled. It isn’t that Mama is the worst onscreen monster that’s graced the silver screen; it’s just that her powers and abilities are incredibly vague. The limitations of her spectral skill-set vary from body possession to portal creation and yet at the same time she cowers in fear and remains out of sight for most of the film. Why can’t Mama just murder all of her enemies and be done with it?
When a film has its audience asking these kinds of questions instead of enjoying the spectacle of the film, something has gone wrong.
Despite these problems, it is refreshing to see a horror film where the human interactions take precedent over the monster that the film is advertised on. There is a sensitivity to Mama that is rare in horror films and it provides an interesting commentary on parenting and motherhood that, while not particularly deep, gives Mama a much needed soul.
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