Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
Written by: Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, Neil Cross
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat, Javier Botet
Four years ago, Guillermo del Toro came across a supernatural horror short co-written and directed by novice filmmaker Andrés Muschietti. Impressed by what he saw, del Toro stepped in to support a feature-length version of Muschietti’s short. Del Toro’s support proved similarly instrumental in getting Juan Antonio Bayona’s (THE IMPOSSIBLE) feature-length debut, THE ORPHANAGE, produced and distributed. Muschietti’s J-Horror inspired film, MAMA, however, fails where THE ORPHANAGE succeeded: a supernatural horror tale with both scares and subtext. MAMA has only a few of the former and little of the latter. MAMA shows every sign of an inexperienced storyteller still finding his way around narrative filmmaking, but there’s a glimmer of the promise del Toro saw in Muschietti’s short.
Muschietti gives the supernatural game away in a prologue that turns on an offscreen office shooting, another offscreen death of a woman, and a frantic, frenzied drive on a snow- and ice-covered road that predictably leads to a car crash. Two children survive, taken in by the vengeful apparition identified only as “mama.” Muschietti postpones disclosing the rationale behind the apparition’s behavior (murderous toward adults, generous toward children) for the obligatory third-act reveal, but it’s a reveal we’ve seen and heard many times before, in effect robbing MAMA of the necessary cathartic jolt(s) typical of the more resonant, more memorable supernatural horror films (cf. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, DARK WATER, THE RING, THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS).
Five years later, searchers find the two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), living in a feral state. They’ve made a dirty, dilapidated cabin their home. Due to their state, they’re taken to a state institution for observation and care. Their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), claims custody, but strained finances and a battle with the girls’ maternal aunt, Jean Podolski (Jane Moffat), leaves him with little choice but to accept the offer of the girls’ self-serving therapist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), to live in a university-owned home, where, in exchange for free rent, Dr. Dreyfuss gets almost unlimited access to the girls. Lucas’ live-in girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a goth-punk rocker, has little interest in motherhood, but that’s exactly where she finds herself as MAMA fitfully moves toward a semi-predictable ending.
Muschietti temporarily removes Lucas from the narrative equation in order to pit Annabel and the malevolent apparition, surrogate mothers both, against each other. Muschietti and his co-screenwriters, his sister Barbara, and Neil Cross, give Annabel a narrative and thematic arc (i.e., from reluctant surrogate mother to full-on, Ripley-style mother), essentially making her MAMA’s central character. To Muschietti’s credit, he avoids the oft-used, oft-abused twist or double-twist ending found in too many contemporary horror films. Instead, he opts for an ending that feels true emotionally and narratively (because it is). Unfortunately, the lead-up to that ending often fails to deliver anything that isn’t dependent on implausibility, coincidence, or, to once again borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert, “idiot plotting” to move disposable characters into place just in time for them to meet their respective ends.
Just as importantly, MAMA fails to deliver on the shocks, scares, and surprises the horror genre promises moviegoers. Minus one or two suspenseful sequences, including one that expands on a similar sequence in the short, MAMA heavily relies on cheap scares (of the jump kind) and a hyperactive soundtrack to periodically remind moviegoers that they are, indeed, watching a horror film. In comparison, THE ORPHANAGE was (and is) an exercise in subtlety and restraint. Even worse, Muschietti leans on CG where suggesting, rather than showing, the apparition’s malevolent presence would have resulted in more effective, more resonant scares, rather than the increasingly ineffective scares that result. If anything, the real mystery is why Jessica Chastain agreed to star in a film that underserves her considerable talents.
2.5 out of 5