Guillermo Del Toro has reached a place in his career that allows him to not only take on the full plate of projects he's attached to (and he's constantly attached to a large slate of upcoming films, whether they end up being made or not), but by attaching his name to a project as a producer, he can allow young directors their chance at making a full length feature. He's done this previously with The Orphanage, a stylish and spooky fright flick released in 2007 and directed by then novice film maker Juan Antonio Bayona. It was a film that bore a resemblance to Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, not so much as imitation, but as spiritual kin in that they both drew from a long, rich history of traditional ghost stories and an old time era of horror films. Both films relied on suspense more than shock and imbued their stories with a healthy bit of the kind of tragedy that has been missing from horror films for a few decades.
Now comes Mama, director Andrés Muschietti's first feature. Having only previously directed a short film of the same name, Muschietti is very much an unknown quantity and without the weight of Del Toro's name would never have been able to secure either a budget of the size Mama obviously has (by no means a blockbuster budget, but still definitely of a larger variety than most any director with one short film under his belt would usually be able to secure), and even more importantly, a nationwide distribution deal.
Shocking both the horror community and Hollywood, Mama succeeded in burying the competition in it's opening weekend. Not insignificant among those ranks was Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to the world of action films, Last Stand. There's some question about whether or not that's due to the change in the landscape of cinema since Schwarzenegger's exit from cinema to take up politics or audiences just having lost interest in him, but regardless of all that, Mama was a surprise hit. Also, a mostly positive word of mouth didn't hurt the film in the least, and seeing the director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy at the top of the posters and advertisements certainly doesn't hurt. The question is, did Mama and it's director just settle under a lucky star or is the film good enough to have accomplished all this on it's own?
The answer is both yes and no. Mama is by no means reinventing the wheel, and it definitely has a place alongside both The Devil's Backbone and The Orphanage as a traditional ghost story with elements of both classical and contemporary horror films mixed in, but it also falls flat in some places. What works, works very well, and what doesn't, doesn't work very well at all.
The story is a new approach to a traditional set up. Two children are sent to live with a couple who are childless and who may not have had immediate plans to have children, and everything isn't what it seems when they arrive. Here, the difference is that these children have been missing for five years, and when they're found, they're essentially feral from having spent that time living alone in a cabin deep in the woods of Virginia. They're returned to an uncle, the brother of the father who brought them to that cabin and then died. There's more to it than that, but that's sufficient to give you a general idea of how the story begins without giving away any major plot details.
One of the more interesting aspects of Mama is that the film is essentially centered on female characters. The uncle they're returned to is involved in what is portrayed as a long term relationship with Jessica Chastain's character Annabel, who very quickly ends up being the children's primary care taker. As the story begins, Annabel is a bass player in a rock band and isn't completely sure that she wants to take on two children that "are already screwed up and not because she even had the chance to screw them up." Her character is essentially struggling with losing her autonomy and starting to have to put her own dreams and the life she knows aside in order to care for two children who are definitely going to need an unusual amount of care. Chastain does a great job of making the character strong, sympathetic and still apprehensive. She's not an ice queen by any means, but she doesn't melt at the thought of giving her life to these children, and she portrays that dichotomy extremely well. One of the things that does set Mama apart from many other horror films is that Chastain's character does have an actual character arc, and even though there probably wasn't all that much on the actual page, she succeeds in making the character someone different from what we've seen forty thousand times in other, similar horror films. She also makes the changes we see in the character in the progression of the story believable. We're in the midst of a boon of young actresses who have an abundance of talent and are getting better parts than previous generations, and even though this isn't the best part she's had, maybe for that reason, Mama is fun and enjoyable. It is a reminder that Chastain is one of the leading lights of a generation of awesomely talented women who are the centers of the films they're in. If that were the only reason worth seeing it, it probably wouldn't be enough for most audiences.
There are some other strengths to the film too. It provides a back bone of tension and suspense that works extremely well. From early on in the film, straight through to the end, it does a good job of keeping the tension ratcheting up a little more every few minutes. Even as it is a bit of a slow burn kind of horror that takes a while before it's willing to release it's full force, it does a great job of understanding what the audience is expecting and both meeting those expectations in some cases and subverting them somewhat in others. There are a few really good scares in the film, and the audience I saw it with definitely did their fare share of explaining to the characters on the screen exactly what they should and shouldn't be doing, something I always take as a sign that a film has grabbed the audience attention intensely enough that they're inhabiting it's world for a while. That's a sign of a horror film that is succeeding in doing some of what it's meant to do.
The other thing that works in the films favor is that of the two girls who play the children, the older of them is convincing in her role. The younger of the girls was only an infant when they were lost in the woods, so she is lacking in verbal skills for her age, leaving the older girl to take the majority of the lines for the children, and she does a good job. Megan Charpentier carries her weight as what is essentially the second lead role in the film, opposite Jessica Chastain. If those two roles don't work or the actors who are playing them aren't convincing, the film is sunk immediately, and Charpentier prevents that by being more than competent for a child actor. Muschietti also deserves some credit for being able to get credible performances from both of the children, especially considering that they are in eighty to ninety percent of the films running time.
One thing the film suffers from is the approach it takes to it's monster, the titular "Mama" of the title. I'm not spoiling anything that can't be gleaned from a trailer by saying that Mama is not necessarily of this world. She's a completely C.G.I. character and Muschietti falls short in two places here. The first is exactly that, making the character completely C.G.I. The second is that he seems to be a little more confident in or a little bit more enamored with that creature than it deserves. It's not even that the C.G.I. is terrible, because it's not. There's just far too much of Mama being shown in full view in the film, and we have yet to really develop a creature in a horror film that holds up to that kind of focus. It may have seemed more cliche, but it would still be more effective to hold back some on just how much screen time he was willing to devote to Mama. It just ruins the mystique of the character, especially considering the supernatural nature of it. Beyond that, using an all C.G.I. character, unless the budget is a Lord of the Rings size, still means it's hard to convince the audience the character has weight and mass and occupies the same physical space as real actors. I don't necessarily have a problem with C.G.I. when it's done well and it works. To get it done well is expensive, and Mama didn't have that kind of budget or Muschietti hasn't yet developed the skill of using that particular tool to it's utmost. Mama, as a creature has some unfortunate visual moments, even though so much of the suspense still works well. He should have stuck with more suspense, and less circus tent freak show.
Also, one of the things about the film that works in its favor also ends up being a detriment. It does have an element of tragedy that so much of classic horror has had and that has helped to make many of the films Guillermo Del Toro has been involved with better than the average horror film. In some cases, they are leagues better than your average horror film, but here it ends up going one step too far. I don't want to reveal too much, so the best I can say is that the tragic aspect of the story was one of the things that I thought was strongest for 99% of the film. It is the absolute, very ending of the film that seemed to go too far, and then in a weird way that didn't completely make sense in concert with the rest of the film, the last minute and a half sullied a good deal of what I'd been appreciating up to that point. It was unfortunate, and it seems to be a question of discipline in the storytelling. Up to that last minute and a half, the ending was working and was tender and heart breaking in it's way. Stepping over that line though, and almost seeming to try to apologize for the tragedy of it seemed like either a cop out or just not understanding that ending on the previous, bigger, more effecting emotion would have been more satisfying for the audience. It was definitely working better for me.
All in all, Mama is a fun little horror film that has it's flaws, but really, those flaws are more honest and less heinous than the majority of what's passing being given national distribution under the banner of horror. If nothing else it introduces a young director who definitely has a well of talent to draw on, but also seems to need to find the discipline to be able to harness that talent most effectively. Also, the tender aspects of the film that do work are unusually successful for a horror film. I may appreciate that more than most horror fans because of my soft spot for the classical tragedy that so much of old horror films and fiction were steeped in, and those had a definite tenderness or at least, a recognition of their characters humanity. It's good to see that Gothic tradition is alive and well and can still sell tickets, I just wish Mama would have made a more solid decision about how closely it wanted to follow that tradition, instead of trying to have it's cake and eat it too without having the subtlety to do so.