I am desperately close to giving up on the horror genre. Scary movies have been my favorite since I can remember (I watched Halloween when I was literally 7 or 8 years old) and I’ve always been okay with the fact that the bad ones far out number the good, or even decent, ones. Because however rarely they come along, the good ones make it worth it. Films like The Ring and 28 Days Later may be the outliers but they’re enough to keep me hanging on through all the campy, awful scary flicks in between.
With all that in mind, I am occasionally duped. I first saw the trailer for Mama months ago and thought I’d burst at the seams with excitement. A ghost story wherein the ghost is a possessive maternal figure lingering in the wild? The idea is rife with possibilities. However, after the monumental disappointment that was Sinister, I worked damned hard not to get my hopes up. And what a good thing that turned out to be because Mama is nothing to get excited over. Like Sinister, it could have worked. It could have been great. It had enough tension, enough eerie imagery and a good enough idea to be one of the good ones that keep fans like me holding on. But director Andres Muschietti simply couldn’t avoid the classic pitfalls of all cheesy horror flicks and his final product is merely mediocre. It isn’t totally without merit, though, and I’ve broken it down into what worked and what didn’t. What worked:
- The fine acting. The whole cast gives solid performances. Even the young girls played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse commit to their roles as Victoria and Lily, respectively, as fully as their adult co-stars, which is particularly noteworthy given how young they are.
- The tense family dynamic between Annabel and the girls. Setting a ghost story against the backdrop of a new, awkward and relatively unstable family unit is refreshingly un-cliche and creates a wonderfully anxious atmosphere.
- The whole set up of the girls being raised in the wild by a maternal ghost. These two girls are abandoned in a shabby old cabin in the woods, itself apparently abandoned by its owners, left to fend for themselves after the vicious deaths of both parents. They grow feral and animalistic, surviving on cherries and insects and the affection of the protective spirit who finds them, the one they call Mama. It’s an excellent idea and it works. At first.
- The girls “wild” behavior and coping mechanisms. From a sociological/psychological point of view, watching the girls interact with the psychologist shortly after they’re found and rescued is damned interesting. And it seems to me their behavior and mannerisms are fairly realistic. They move on all fours, hide under beds to avoid contact with strangers and young Lily clings to her older sister with an unrelenting co-dependence that feels impossible to undo. Similarly, Victoria accepts the role of protector over her little sister with the kind of innate responsibility found in all first-borns.
- The visual imagery. I love the use of trees/wilderness at every opportunity – even in the house Annabel and Lucas attain to raise the girls in a conventional family setting, the art work reflects haunting photos of trees. It reinforces the feeling of isolation, bringing a tinge of dread into every scene. The images of Mama herself before she’s fully revealed are sufficiently creepy and her means of mobility when she isn’t merely gliding through the air – living in black, necrotic holes in the walls and dissolving into something the size and shape of a scarf to skitter along the floor – give her an ethereal quality, as impossible to pin down as smoke.
What did not work and effectively ruined the whole damn thing:
- Mama. Once she’s wholly shown to us, Mama is so poorly done that any hint of of a scare evaporates. I’m not a visual effects snob – I don’t need the CGI to be on the level of Gollum, but the animation here is so entirely artificial and lazy, I found myself wishing they’d just left her as nothing more than a blurry, dark shadow. In this case, less would have certainly been more.
- Mama’s back story. It’s an embarrassingly simple and trite origin story to begin with and way too much time is spent on it. It would have been better without it entirely. It adds nothing to the feel and tone of the movie and slows its pace enough that for me, it actually dragged at times. The worst part of this is that it keeps its audience from really becoming hooked into the story. The creepiest, most exciting scenes are cut short or interrupted by the filler of Mama’s history, rendering them less effective. It made me feel so frustrated, I could have screamed at the screen to just end the damn thing already. (Which leads me to…)
- The ending. That’s right – the end, when it finally came, turned out to be the worst part of the movie. It is painfully drawn out and absurdly melodramatic and, worst of all, not even remotely scary.
Do I have to write my own damn scary movie just to get a decent one in existence? What was the last good ghost story – The Sixth Sense? Come on, Hollywood! I don’t want to give up on you but you have to give me something to cling to!