In a time where filmgoers are screaming for originality, Guillermo del Toro comes through with his latest production, Mama, directed by Andrés Muschietti. It’s a horror film loaded with great ideas and multiple scares, but it’s deflated by horrendous CGI and ridiculous exposition.
Mama opens with a disjointed voiceover explaining that a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has gone crazy during the financial crisis. He returns home, murders his wife and then takes his two little girls to a remote cabin in the woods where, before he can shoot his daughter in the back of the head, a creature blasts out of the darkness and whisks him away. Five years later, this man’s brother, Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau), has been paying two rednecks to try and find his missing family. They stumble onto the cabin where they find that the two girls have been surviving off cherries for all of those years. The first act is truly disturbing, focusing on these scary “feral” children who crawl around all creature-like. Things take a second act turn when it’s revealed that they were actually raised by someone they call “Mama”.
When Mama is focusing on the little girls, it’s quite chilling. But when everything shifts to their doctor and Jeffrey’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), it becomes bloated with exposition and unnecessary plot devices. Not to say that these elements couldn’t be compelling, they just suffer in the direction that Muschietti takes them. He’s so intent on wrapping everything up so perfectly that the proceedings become convoluted and straight up boring. Instead of propelling through scary scenes and ghostly pursuits, the audience is sung to sleep by investigations and unnecessary conflict (such as the girls’ aunt who wants custody).
It’s inexplicable why there’s so much CGI in a film where there are some insanely disturbing uses of practice effects (similar to The Ring). The effects work literally kills Mama, preventing her from being truly terrifying in a clear-cut case of “too much’. We see Mama way too much, there are too many effects shots in general, and for whatever reason Muschietti felt the need to have Mama performing acrobatics like bending backward off walls and twisting into inordinate shapes. Some of the most haunting and jump out of your seat scary moments are subtle and quick, not long-winded and showy.
And not taking anything away from Chastain, but her character is written and wardrobed into shambles. She’s typecast as a poor musician with a horrible wig and an attitude. Her character is so off-putting that it sinks the film’s believability into the abyss (even before the overuse of effects can do so).
The most disappointing aspect of Mama is that the original idea is fantastic, and some of the scares are out of this world effective. But ultimately poor writing, editorial, and effects decisions transform it into a long-winded, almost faux horror movie. It’s sad because most people won’t even notice they missed out on a better version of this admittedly cool concept. Even worse, Mama is a film I can actually recommend on some level, knowing that a hardcore horror fan could actually garner some enjoyment out of it once they concede to the fact that it’s an utter mess.