Mama needs a facelift
Shaky plot undermines good acting in horror flick
By Tim Pompey 01/31/2013
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse
Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
1 hr. 40 mins.
What is it about Spanish filmmakers, horror films and little girls? From The Orphanage to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s a common theme here. As if little girls by their nature are especially prone to psychic disturbances.
Now wait, you say. This film is in English and takes place in Virginia. True, but when you read the ending credits, you realize that not only is it presented by Guillermo Del Toro, it was mostly filmed and produced in Spain. Surprise.
I suppose if you want to guarantee an emotional response, it’s hard to argue with the approach. On the big screen, little girls seem particularly vulnerable to terror. So how hard is it to tug at the old heart strings when they’re in danger? And if it’s worked once, why change? Just reinvent the story and move on.
Except that, in the case of Mama, the story is so outlandish and full of holes, you really have to suspend your disbelief on so many levels and hope that other parts of the movie (like, say, the acting) will make up for it.
The film opens with a murder in an upscale suburban neighborhood. Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has just shot his ex-wife and fled with his daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), to a remote cabin in the mountains. His intent is to kill them, then turn the gun on himself. But before he can pull the trigger, a ghost the girls eventually come to call Mama grabs him and pulls him away, presumably to kill him off.
Five years later, the girls are discovered in that same cabin, living like wild animals. Jeffrey’s twin brother, Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) are living a bohemian life in a small Richmond Va., flat. He’s an artist. She plays bass in a rock band. He wants to take care of the girls. She’s skeptical about whether or not she can handle it.
After Victoria and Lilly are brought to a local psychiatric hospital for treatment, their psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), offers Luke, Annabel and the girls a nice house free of charge on the hospital grounds if they’ll let him continue the girls’ therapy. Luke and Annabel accept the offer and begin life as a blended family.
But Mama the ghost has traveled down from the mountain and camped out in the house’s walls. Being a jealous mother with a tormented history of her own, you can guess that when anyone gets too close to the girls, she becomes dangerous.
There are some effective moments in this film. Director Andrés Muschietti knows how to use a camera and how to create tension. I promise there will be some jump-in-your-seat scenes, no matter how well you prepare yourself. He also carries over some creepy camera influences from such notable Japanese classics as The Grudge and The Ring.
Potentially, this film, with good performances by Jessica Chastain and young Megan Charpentier, could have been more powerful, but what starts strong deteriorates until the third act resembles the baby bag of bones that Mama holds in her arms. What’s even more disturbing, I suspect that this movie is headed for the sequel bin.
Mama has some scary moments and I admit that for some, the case of Victoria and Lilly as feral orphans will be enough to make up for the story’s other weaknesses. But for me, the plot is too suspect. More plausibility would have helped and maybe an original twist or two about the ghostly plight of Mama.
Maybe it’s time for Del Toro to change things up. There are lots of other people, old and young, who need haunting. Let’s hope next time around, he and his minions find someone else to pick on.