Mama review: Decent, unmemorable horror

[Originally published at]

These days, too many horror movies simply function as scare machines, written and directed to generate as many jumps as possible but without as much regard to characters or storyline. For this reason, I loved Scott Derickson’s Sinister, released this past October, for being a genuinely compelling mystery and crime drama while also functioning as a crowd pleasing horror movie for the Halloween season. Andres Muschietti’s Mama, similarly, tries to put more of an emphasis on story than we would normally expect, but unfortunately, despite some incredibly creepy imagery and handful of genuinely great scares, it never adds up to as much as it should.

Mama opens in the midst of the 2008 economic collapse as a man, Jeffrey, murders his wife and runs away with his two daughters into the forest, where they come across a mysterious figure. Five years later, a rescue party, sponsored by Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), discovers the two daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), living in the forest. Jeffrey and his wife Annabel (Jessica Chastain) agree to take the girls into their care, though they soon discover that growing up in the forest for five years creates some serious complications. As the girls are put under psychological evaluations, they continue referencing the same mysterious woman: “Mama.”

With a horror movie like this, it’s all about the imagery, and about showing us things that are so creepy they simply can’t be forgotten. The plot of The Ring is somewhat muddled and confused, but boy, who can forget the image of little Samara, with her long, black hair, slowly crawling out of that well through the TV? It’s here where Mama most often delivers, to the point where it’s worth seeing for this aspect alone. Andres Muschietti does an excellent job of creating an unsettling atmosphere, and of crafting individual moments which would be perfect for some sort of horror movie highlight reel. When we finally see the film’s title character, I was reminded of movies like The Ring, whose unique monsters are absolutely iconic.

Another area where Mama really shines is, surprisingly, the performances of the daughters. Both actresses, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse, do a phenomenal job, being believable as children but also necessarily creepy at times, like when they’re discovered in the forest after having been abandoned for so many years. Lilly in particular crawls around the house like some sort of human-spider hybrid, and it’s as creepy as any of the film’s more elaborate special effects while feeling totally genuine.

The problem is that the storyline of Mama seems to exist simply to justify the creepy imagery, as if the film’s screenwriters came up with the scares first and the story second. The sight of Mama herself is intriguing and creepy, but the back story is nothing special. The screenplay consists of far too many cliches and annoyances, like a character, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Cash) who exists for no other reason than to explain the plot to us, and the overall narrative is at times way too close to that of a conventional family drama, with few big twists that we can’t easily see coming. There are some excellent ideas here, but they don’t often land with as much of an impact as they should, and as the film nears its climax, the originality found in the opening few scenes begins to fizzle out.

Like Sinister, I admire Mama for being a horror movie which puts emphasis on story over cheap gore and pointless scares, but unlike that film, Mama‘s story isn’t very interesting outside the context of a horror movie. I suppose it works as a way to get us to the scares, but it doesn’t stand out as anything memorable, unlike Sinister. Where the movie shines is in its unsettling imagery, performances by the lead children characters, and its pretty good amount of genuinely inventive scares. For a beginning of the year horror release, Mama does the job, but only barely.

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