Andrés Muschietti’s Mama (based on the short film Mama) has its scary moments, but for the most part, is a fairly calm film. When I first saw the trailer for Mama, I thought, ‘this looks absolutely terrifying.’ The trailer seemed promising with its creepy children, choppy, jarring ghost movements, and star, the very talented Jessica Chastain. All the elements of a proper ghost story were nicely tied together and I resolved that there was no way this film wouldn’t be able to deliver. As I walked into the cinema, I started having my doubts. First of all, the audience consisted of middle-aged to older men and women. In fact, I followed a middle aged, conservatively dressed woman into the cinema and had to recheck the movie poster at the entrance to make sure the cinema was showcasing the film. Secondly, the movie trailers at the beginning of horror films are usually scary and work within the horror film genre. After a trailer for Monsters University, followed by Die Hard, and other non-scary films, we dive into the opening of Mama, and that’s where my hopes of catching an intelligently put together ghost story were crushed.
The opening and the ending are the film’s weakest moments. It opens with a shot of a car, the door open, as if someone rushed out only moments before we enter on the scene. A radio broadcast plays over the image and we learn that a man has killed his business partners, and now is on the run. We then hear a gunshot coming from within the house in the distance, and we are suddenly introduced to two children, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse). We are also introduced to their father, the man who is believed to be the killer on the run. He’s just killed his wife, and has taken the children as hostage. They drive along an icy road on the side of a mountain cliff, and yes, you guessed it, the car crashes. The father and his kids survive and walk through the forest, stumbling upon an abandoned cottage. They enter, and the father has an emotional breakdown, decides to kill his children, but Mama comes to the rescue and kills him. There we have our introduction to the ghost, who looks like a dementor from Harry Potter. The child calls to her father from the living room, wherein she gazes out the window. She says there’s a woman outside and she’s not touching the ground. The set-up and dialogue are great, but the image of the CGI ghost debunks every scary thing you were anticipating in this film.
Next we’re introduced to Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and her boyfriend, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a bassist in a rock-band and an artist, respectively. Annabel is someone who doesn’t want to be tied down, and her introduction consists of her in the bathroom, ecstatic by the fact that she is not pregnant. After a brief scene in the woods with two characters who we never see again, the kids, after five years of being abandoned in the woods, are discovered, and Annabel is forced to change her rockstar ways, leave her band, and settle down in a house with two kids and a boyfriend. Her patience is nearly exhausted as she struggles to connect with these two children.
The middle section of the film that consists mostly of Annabel interacting with Victoria and Lily (Lucas is taken out of the picture after an experience with Mama leaves him in a coma) is worth watching. Here we have character development as Annabel struggles to get use to these children, especially Lily who roams around the house at night on all fours. Some of the shots are beautifully set up so to add to the atmosphere of the haunted house. There is one shot that is so spectacular and leaves you wanting more. The shot is set up so that we see through the doorway of Lily’s and Victoria’s room, and simultaneously see down the hallway. Lily plays with a blanket, holding on to one end, as a mysterious other pulls on the other side, but we’re unable to look into the room to see who that someone is. Lily is thoroughly amused as she plays this tug-of-war game with the blanket as Annabel carries a basket of laundry down the corridor. If we assume that Lily is playing with Victoria, those hopes are crushed when we see Victoria appear in the hallway and slowly approach the room. Before entering, she directs Annabel away, and closes the door to the room; as the door shuts, we see Lily’s legs dangling in the air and moving across the room as she laughs in amusement. What is not seen creates such a disturbing effect and the eerily laugh of the children punctuates several unsettling scenes. The film would have profited from the absence of Mama. It is once she’s introduced, in all her CGI-ness, that the film takes a turn for the worse.
The film introduces two nightmare scenes, one more terrifying than the other. Lucas wakes from his coma after having a nightmare of his brother who appears under a bridge. The contorted body of the ghost as he walks into the scene is jarring and his fragmented movement and uncanny voice are incredibly unsettling. The second nightmare scene is not as great. It looks good, aesthetically, but here we get the back story to Mama. A hysterical woman rushes into a nurses’ unit and kills a nun in order to get her baby. She then runs away with the infant and a search party is sent after her. They chase her to the very top of a mountain peak, and there she decides to commit suicide and take her baby with her. She jumps off the cliff; however, on the ride down she hits a branch, and the baby is left dangling above the water, as she plunges to her death. It is this separation that causes her ghostly presence to go in search of her child and so she must always repeat the same actions until her child is restored to her (or so an archive worker tells us as she explains ghosts to Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash)—thank you, lady, but I’ve seen Ghostbusters. I know how ghosts work).
Dr. Dreyfuss is an interesting character who, like most characters in this film, is poorly developed. When he’s serious, he removes his glasses in a very professional and thoughtful way, and when he’s simply adding plot detail, he keeps his glasses on. This focus on eyewear is distracting and becomes so characteristic of this one-dimensional character. He takes interest in the kids, and makes it possible for the courts to grant custody to Lucas and Annabel. He seems to be your typical psychiatrist, but then he hints at a research project that makes the children his priority. He’s interested not in the psychological development of the children, but in the possibility of finding a ghost. His research leads him to Mama and he goes to scout her out and speak to her himself. He arrives midday in the woods, when the sun is still shining, with the intention of seeking out the cabin in which Mama lives. When we see him next, he has found the cabin and it is now nighttime. We can only assume that he’s been walking for a really long time before finding the cabin, because, how else could it have switched so quickly from daylight to nighttime?
The movie’s ending is disappointing. It is more hilarious than frightening as Lucas, Annabel, Victoria, and Lily appear on a mountain top and Mama threatens to jump over the edge with the children. Annabel returns her dead child’s bones to her, and we’re left to see a sweet moment between a mother and her child as her CGI deformities are restored, and we look upon a woman. However, (and this is the most absurd part) Lily screams, pulling Mama out of her sincere moment with her dead child’s baby bones. She returns to her CGI deformities and flings her child’s bones over the cliff.
The acting is phenomenal. Chastain, Charpentier, and Nelisse are great together. Chastain’s performance proves that she will never be type-casted. The film fails in its narrative, and in its presentation. The scenes that unfold in the house effectively convey a sense of unease, but once we see Mama, that unease changes to disinterest. I wouldn’t rush off to see the film in cinemas, (well I would and did because I’m a huge Chastain fan), but I would recommend waiting this one out. The film in its entirety isn’t bad; there are some redeeming qualities, and a few good jump scares, but the ending drastically alters the quality of the film. I warned you. Now go see for yourself.