If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and the eponymous being at the center of the new “Guillermo del Toro presents” is decidedly not happy for most of the movie.
Adapted by director Andres Muschietti from his short film of the same name, Mama doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. It’s certainly being sold as a horror movie, but while it is supernatural, the plot has more in common with older ghost stories like What Lies Beneath (2000) or even the rather obviously titled Ghost Story (from 1981). But for better and for worse, CGI has advanced wildly in the past thirty years, and in the post Torture Porn era, more not less is the cinematic rule of the day. In the intervening years, we’ve had Aliens and Ringu and Hobbits and even the Twilight series, and vestiges and tropes of every last one of them show up here.
Mama opens with news coming over the car radio about the epic financial panic going on, and soon one of the disaster’s apparent architects rushes into his house to retrieve his daughters and make an escape (don’t get too attached; this movie’s not called Daddy). Even if we weren’t hearing the details over the radio (he murdered his estranged wife etc), we would know in movie shorthand that he is not a good guy because he drags the kids out of the house and leaves their mystified little weiner dog behind. (Wife-killing is one thing, but who abandons the family dog?)
Into the snowy, Kubrickian, mountains they drive — briefly — before Dad loses control and crashes the car over an embankment. Surviving the wreckage, he marches the family through the woods until they come upon an abandoned cabin. The girls instantly know what Dad is oblivious to: someone (or something) is already there. Collapsed in a heap and racked by despair and desperation, he grips his gun in preparation for the murder-suicide he has probably intended all along. Enter “Mama.”
Flash forward five years, and we meet Dad’s brother, Uncle Luke (the same actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his bass playing girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, who might’ve borrowed Kristen Stewart’s wig from The Runaways). Though she is not the maternal type (thanking God for a negative pregnancy test when we first encounter her), he has never given up the search for his nieces, and miraculously they are eventually located by a crew he has spent all his money hiring to find them.
It’s been five years. Five years in a tiny hipster apartment…. but, ok, more importantly, five years in an abandoned cabin, and these girls haven’t just misplaced a few table manners. They’re feral little savages, scampering around on all fours. The younger Lily has forgotten her language skills and the older Victoria isn’t much better off. We come to be relieved she broke her glasses in the car wreck five years ago. She knows some things are better unseen.
Even more miraculously, a psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), comes through with a case-study house the newly-formed family can live in, vanquishing Aunt Jean’s bid for custody, as long as he can continue his “research.”
Nothing goes right. Annabel didn’t sign on for Mom duty, telling one of her former bandmates, “I didn’t even have the chance to screw ’em up. They came that way.” She says things to the children after a middle of the night ruckus, like, “do you guys know what time it is?!” before realizing out loud, with a hint of newfound empathy, “I guess you wouldn’t.”
But there’s no time in this family drama to work out mundane re-integration into civilized society issues (what’s a fork? what’s a bathroom?). Because these little girls couldn’t have survived alone in the wilderness for five years. They had a caretaker. They had “Mama.” Is she a ghost? Is she a monster? Has she come along to haunt them? All of the above. She’s followed them to their suburban research environs, and as Victoria tells Annabel, “she gets jealous.” As one character puts it, “a ghost is an emotion bent out of shape,” and that’s putting it mildly. Although she has her protective moments, she also has a very big grudge to settle.
Unfortunately, we see too much of her, and we hear too much of her, and we learn way too much about her backstory, when a little mystery might’ve been a better thing. The skittery spider walking and the watery cascading hair? That was all part of The Ring and The Grudge series. Sneaky half-animatronic but life-like fantasy creatures? This generation was weaned on Andy Serkis’s Gollum. Shuddery footfalls and jitter cams? Paranormal Activity 1 thru 4. Reluctant maternal figures protecting little girls from monsters? Sigourney-Get Away From Her You Bitch-Weaver covered that a long time ago. “Mama” and Mama trots all these out anyway. There’s even a moment (this isn’t spoiling anything) where Mama suddenly appears over a horizon exactly like the helicopter that surprisingly lurches into frame in the first Lethal Weapon — the only thing the scene needed to make the homage complete was “Mama” shooting holes into a carton of milk with a sharpshooter sniper’s rifle.
Anyway. After some very shifty goings-on and a diagnosis of a potential split personality for one of the girls, Annabel asks the doctor a question that would be much too sane to ever be uttered in a conventional horror movie, “Am I safe?” He laughs it off, “from a crazy eight-year-old? Give me a break.”
Of course she isn’t safe. No one is. Not from “Mama.”
This year’s Oscar crop is already fading on the vine. Jessica Chastain is nominated for Zero Dark Thirty and that won’t hurt ticket sales, but it won’t guarantee a hit either (ask Meryl Streep). Another Oscar contender, Jennifer Lawrence, did horror this past year (House at the End of the Street), and her reputation is surviving nicely. But this movie will largely rise and fall on the Guillermo del Toro imprimatur, and it lives up to that in a reasonable fashion. It’s no Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s not Mimic either (though they inexplicably borrowed all those roach-like alien clicking sound effects for “Mama”). Muschietti shows some promise that he might eventually realize with a much stronger editor, and fewer writers per project (too many cooks nearly spoiled this pot entirely).
Movie lovers know what they’re getting. They know January is where movie releases go to die. The Summer Blockbusters aren’t even a glimmer of a dream yet. Once in a while, a thoroughly serviceable little sleeper gets dropped off in the winter (like Taken), but it’s rare. So Mama will hit the spot for a certain audience — an audience that doesn’t expect a whole lot, and will be relieved to see a brand name actor with big budget visuals.