If you watch Andres Muschietti’s 3 minute short film Mama, good luck not releasing your bowels in fear. If you watch Muschietti’s hour and 40 minute feature film Mama, good luck not dozing off in boredom. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Mucshietti’s Mama plays out like a watered down horror film made by someone who read the “Horror Movie Filmmaker’s Handbook.” Mama had the guts, just not the glory. It’s a film that seems to have been made by a very talented artist who just hasn’t reached his full potential.
Jeffery has just killed two of his Wall Street co-workers. In his psychotic break, he rushes home to kill his wife and kidnaps his two toddler daughters, Lily and Victoria. Distraught by the events, he recklessly speeds around the curves of a cliff in icy, snowy weather, skidding off the road and sending his car crashing in the process… you know, because why wouldn’t that happen?
The crash leads the trio to an abandoned house where Jeffery decides to set up camp and debate a murder-suicide scenario. Just when he makes his decision a strange floating figure emerges, saving the girls from death. The figure soon gives the children food, thus beginning an unhealthy relationship with the girls that spans five years. In time, a search party funded by Jeffery’s brother Lucas finds the now feral, malnourished girls. After a custody battle with a devoted family member, Lucas and his apprehensive bass-playing girlfriend Annabelle take the girls in with the help of Dr. Dreyfuss, who wants to use the girls in his case study. Strange happenings begin to take place with the girls in their care, including witnessing them communicate to an unseen presence they call “Mama.”
Muschietti’s visual rendering of Mama is so creepily fantastic that the image alone made me want to cross my chest and pray to the gods I don’t see her in my dreams… but I probably will. The rail-thin figure with stringy floating hair and a pair of askew, wild eyes, looks as terrifying as she moves. Mama transforms frequently, sometimes walking in backward crablike formation, other times sweeping across floors like a puddle of murky water, but mostly moving with the finesse of someone whose limbs are made of K’Nex and twigs. Anytime the figure is on screen I couldn’t help but gasp and feel my mind immediately try not to invite it into my subconscious. Mucshietti also displays phenomenal moments of poised direction. A dream sequence involving Annabel is simply incredible as her tangible reality melts away in front of her and audiences and the apparition takes place in hyper-realistic color and movements. Long takes that often pan back and forth between objects or circle around characters while slowly walking through a scene without a single cut are further exceptional moments in the film.
And you thought this was the scariest “Mama.”
However, the aforementioned accolades are short-lived, and much of the film doesn’t receive the same ingenious style of filmmaking. In fact much of Mama is done in your average, “we’ve seen these tropes a million and one times” style. If you’ve watched at least five horror films in your life then you know the familiar elements used to score one. The standard high pitched strings, loud bang of a drum when a scene is in close up, and also blaring low horns. All the familiar sound effects that happen in horror films are present in almost every scene of Mama, you know to keep the tension up and distract you from the fact that it’s pretty boring overall.
Did I mention this film gets pretty boring? I spent most of the film squirming in my seat from restlessness. Mama spends so much of its time trying to uncover who, what, and why Mama is, that it neglects all the other main characters, making it difficult to understand who, what, and why they are. Why did Jeffery go on his killing spree? Why was it so easy for Victoria to adapt to living with Lucas and Annabelle? Annabelle constantly complains that she didn’t sign up to raise two kids with Lucas, but responds to a friend’s suggestion of leaving by saying that she can’t leave him. Why, I mean it’s not like they appear to have a great relationship or anything. What was Lucas’ relationship with his brother and the girls that made him so hell bent on finding them? Even more so, what convinced him that they were still in the area and not with Jeffery in Mexico with new identities? What was really up with Dr. Dreyfuss? The whole film constantly reminds us that these girls’ condition is exceptional and different yet it barely acknowledges the mental and physical discrepancies that would result from living in the wild and eating nothing but cherries.
So sometimes I can be a bit of a movie snob and my snobbery was in full effect while watching Mama. With my nose turned up to the heavens and my pinky so high it tickled God, I constantly found myself huffing and puffing at how awful Mama’s cinematography is. It’s such an obnoxiously dark film that it gets weighed down because of how drab and bland everything looks. In certain scenes, lights seem to be missing from the set just for the sake of creating a dim and shadowy aesthetic. Colors seem to be sucked of all their life and everything is just so dark that night scenes lose their punch. A look at the films Sinister or Insidious will show how to properly create a dark aesthetic while keeping things well lit.
Viewers who scare pretty easily in films, but still get a thrill from horror, will likely be terrified during Mama, but for those of us horror purists who knows that a pan out in a dark room will likely reveal a creepy figure unseen to a character, Mama is pretty average. It’s worth the viewing, though, for its horrific antagonist and pretty effed up, confusing, yet intriguing ending.
Take a Drink: every time Annabelle complains about taking care of the girls
Take a Drink: every time Aunt Jean pointlessly appears
Take a Drink: every time you kind of forget about Lucas
Take a Drink: every time someone just misses seeing Mama for themselves
Do a shot: whenever seeing Mama makes your heart race