Guillermo Del Toro’s name is usually enough to get me to see a movie since a number of his handiwork have become some of my favorite films (“Pan‘s Labyrinth“, “The Devil‘s Backbone“ and “Cronos“ to name a few). I do have to admit, when I see his name under “executive producer” in an American-made flick, the film is usually a hit or a miss. 2013’s “Mama” is an adaptation of the Spanish short story by Andres Muschietti and features another huge acting talent in Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Debt). The film had some incredible backing behind it when it comes to marketing due to two well-known names in movies. Okay, the film isn’t terrible and this is Muschietti’s first full-length feature film, I do have to say that the film struggles to keep its script above the clichés that hinder its pace.
Young Victoria and young Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) are two kids whose mother was murdered by their estranged father. The two were left in the woods in a dilapidated cabin for five years until one day, a pair of hunters stumbles upon them. The two were found half-starved, and they have become almost primitively feral due to the hardships of such a lifestyle. Their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) are astonished with their survival, and are now faced with the challenge of raising them. A child psychologist, named Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), intrigued with the children’s story that he offers them a house for them to raise the two girls, in return he gets to continue his studies on them. But soon after they move into the house, strange occurrences start to happen and Luke and Annabel begin to wonder if something malevolent had followed the two girls from the woods.
Andres Muschietti directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross. Now, I am not familiar with the source material, but I do have to admit that the film’s premise appealed to me. “Mama” has the potential to be incredibly creepy, but the script just couldn’t keep things focused on what it was trying to do. The film has themes of “mother-children” relationships, imaginary friends and it is once again a ghost story that revolves around kids. Yes, these were the central themes that I saw which drive the film’s premise, but certain things just made the film feel muddled. It carried an unnecessary subplot that went nowhere, devices that barely got developed (such as the dreams), and the film relied too heavily with visual manipulations and what horror fans have come to call as jump scares. Instead of developing the story to generate suspense such as the underrated “Sinister”, “Mama” seems adamant to make the scares a visual treat, making loud bumps and scary atmosphere to try and hit terror home.
Not really sure, but the Muschietti appears to have ran out of material a little too soon, and perhaps his premise weren’t originally intended to be this long at 100 minutes. The characters in “Mama” are cliché. Annabel was obviously the better written of them, but she wasn’t exactly given the opportunity to command the film. There was a potential drama with her not wanting to be a mother, but the film just doesn’t go much into her background to make her more compelling. The other roles felt like fodder, even the two girls were seen as two girls that need rescuing and not much else. The script failed to establish the characters and therefore the viewer becomes disconnected; they are what one can call horror stereotypes, and it was difficult to feel for their peril.
Sure, Chastain, Charpentier and Nelisse were good in their performances. Chastain was charismatic as usual, but I wondered as to why she would take a role this hollow after her successes in her other films. The little girls had their moments to shine, as the two were cute and quite frankly very likeable. Charpentier was good as she embraced her “Victoria” character, she was the one thing who was able to keep things interesting. To keep the balance from the horror scenes, the script serves up some laughs, and given the one-dimensional characters the actors had to work with, it was necessary for the two girls to try and charm the viewer.
The visual effects were good and the atmosphere of the film were spot on. I do have to say that Andres Muschietti made the right move in keeping the malevolent spirit hidden from camera view in the first act, which he then reveals little by little in the second act. I do have to say that I recognized its familiar style that mimicked the likes of Japanese horror films. But by the final act, you get to see the spirit in full view. “Mama” would’ve done better in the shadows and while I appreciated the use of practical effects, the film had so much unwelcome CGI effects. Now the soundtrack and the audio manipulations in the film were superb. I could really feel the surround sound applications in the film.
“Mama” is a horror film that showed a lot of promise that it may be the reason why Del Toro and Chastain took the film assignment. But the script just became hindered by its own lack of materials to develop its premise. It is just so damned predictable and while I don’t mind predictability, but the characters just weren’t strong enough to hold the film together. Also after awhile, the jump scares become tedious and monotonous that it drained all the suspense from the film. I can see how the film could appeal to some people who would like to see it as a rental, since the jolts and screams can give off some horror entertainment. “Mama” wasn’t a good film but decent enough to RENT and drink beer and eat pizza. [2 ½ Out of 5 Stars]