Review: ‘Mama’ Is Intriguing But Not Terrifying As Promised

Originally a Spanish short by director Andres Muschietti, Mama marks the director’s first feature film. With the pairing of Mischietti and producer Guillermo del Toro, this is another attempt to infiltrate Spanish-style horror into the American mainstream market. While the film is intriguing and earnest with its intention, it sometimes falters where it should have shined.

The general gist of the film is that two girls, Lily and Victoria, are brought up by a mysterious figure they refer to as Mama after their father snaps and takes them to a cabin to murder them. The two girls, who at the time are 4 years old and 1year old, are saved by Mama, which starts the bond created out of the figure’s maternal instincts.

Flash forward five years later, and the girls are found by their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) but are in feral condition. The bond with Mama is still strong, and she follows them to their new home with an unsuspecting uncle Luke and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who really wants nothing more than to play in her rock band and brood about the kids’ presence in the house. As fate would have it, Annabel is pulled towards the children’s shortcomings and starts bonding with them, which results in the ultimate wrath of Mama.

Review: 'Mama' Is Intriguing But Not Terrifying As Promised

What worked:

Theme – Lately, there’s been a lot left to be desired from horror films. These days we’re more so focused on the biggest shriek and thrill in favor for a real back story to the ghoul at hand. Mama makes sure that there’s not only a sinister quality but also a humanistic quality to the ghoul. The fact that this character has desires that stem beyond sinister motives works for the empathy felt towards the end of the film. Her three-dimensional like quality brings a lot to the screen, and, while she may not be as terrifying as she should be, Mama’s definitely interesting as an antagonist.

Jessica Chastain – Having someone with the acting chops like Jessica Chastain to star as the protagonist in a horror film does a bunch to beef up a film that could have felt too campy otherwise. Chastain added legitimacy to the suspense of Mama and worked her way as best as she could through the formulaic dialogue. The audience can easily see that she’s not milking it or pulling a face, which makes Mama, at times, very suspenseful as an ambiguous force that flits across the screen.

Tone: Putting aside the pacing issues of the story, the tone created around the character Mama is what really did this film justice. From the first ten minutes, we’re granted little voyeuristic glances of Mama, which work well. Then we see her in action as a bigger slice of her form is revealed. From her mold-like growth on the walls to her smokey appearance as she swoops behind closed doors, Mama is definitely a figure that heightens the suspense of her character ultimately driving the tension and creepiness of the film forward.

What didn’t work:

Bulky Plot: There’s a difference between having a powerful back story and simply getting lost in the set up of the plot. Although elements of the script for the character of Mama are strong on their own, the latter happened, which at times really slowed the unfolding of events. By the time we actually got around to seeing the result of the tension built around Mama, it was at the halfway mark of the film. A little more action and fewer visits to the underdeveloped psychologist could have helped that along.

CGI – Unfortunately, what worked for Mama’s suspense wound up being her greatest downfall when she was finally revealed. For a character that had a pretty solid humanizing back-story, it didn’t quite match the visualization when her full form was revealed to the audience. She’s way too CGI, so much that it’s a wonder if this film could have been re-imagined thirty years ago. If anything, it would have been nice to see a more human figure revealed. If we’re going in the other direction for the fantastical, then give Mama a truly frightening look. Settling halfway with CGI didn’t do the trick. In the end, she just didn’t live up to the panic-stricken look on Jessica Chastain’s face. While there was nothing truly wrong with the CGI itself, it just didn’t work for the character.

Underdeveloped Characters: Okay, so we can barely believe that Jessica Chastain is a pouty, black-haired punk rocker with a snarl, but we’ll take the bait. However, that’s where her character development ends. Even though Chastain gave a good performance, her character was forgettable, and you’re not exactly rooting for any of the characters that battle Mama. Then there’s characters who just seem to exist with no real purpose. There’s what’s supposed to be the heroic uncle Luke, but he’s neither heroic or fully realized, so it’s hard to care whether or not he survives an early fall in the film. Then there’s the psychologist who’s assigned to assess Victoria and Lilly’s emotional development, but instead he goes off on a witch-hunt to unveil who Mama is. What could have been an interesting element to the story just ends up being a wasted device in favor of a bloated plot.

There have been worse horror flicks made in the last few years, with cringe-worthy dialogue, underdeveloped plot, and pulpy story lines to last a lifetime. Although Mama really fails to bring forth a terrifying kid-centric film, it doesn’t fail in all areas. Certain aspects of the film don’t gel as much as they should, but it does put in great effort where their predecessors haven’t. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s still worth a look, if not for a different glimpse of Jessica Chastain’s chops then for the great character created around the mystery of Mama.

Mama hits theaters this Friday.