Film review: Mama

The protagonist is scary, but the movie isn’t

Washington Post
07:10 February 14, 2013

There’s something dead and rotting at the the centre of “Mama,” and it isn’t the ghost of the woman who lends the horror film its title. (Note: This is not a spoiler. We first meet Mama a mere five minutes into the movie. We hear about her even before that, when a little girl announces, before the opening credits have even rolled, “Daddy, there’s a woman outside; she’s not touching the floor.” So much for suspense.)

No, the cadaverous entity that animates “Mama” is, rather, the corpse of the modern imagination. We have, as filmgoers, become so unused to using our own brains — to think, to feel, to visualize the invisible — that many filmmakers today feel compelled to show us everything. The contemporary horror film is effective, but soul-deadening. And so it is with “Mama.”

Sure, it’s scary enough, but cheaply, not deeply.

The story about two orphaned girls who are found living in a remote cabin in the woods with an ectoplasmic caregiver contains enough frights to satisfy the minimum recommended allowance. But it doesn’t engender the kind of dread that lingers as you walk from the theatre lobby to the parking garage.

Mama the CGI ghoul is scary as heck. “Mama” the movie isn’t. The movie opens with a brief prologue, which, while stylishly shot, gives way too much away. Jeff (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has murdered his wife and taken his two little girls to the woods, where he intends to kill them. But he is dispatched by a ghostlike entity.

Fast-forward five years, to when Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her little sister Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are found, filthy and feral. Eventually, they’re taken in by Jeff’s slacker brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his rock bassist girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, in Goth drag). But what Lucas and Annabel don’t know — although we, unfortunately, already do — is that the girls come with their own phantasmagoric nanny.

“A ghost is an emotion,” as one minor character tells us, “bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself, time and time again, until it rights the wrong it was done.” That’s a pretty thought, isn’t it? It’s also a bunch of hooey.

In “Mama,” a ghost isn’t an emotion, but a creepy grey-skinned chick with hair like Medusa who lives in the walls, and whose presence is signalled by the arrival of dozens of black moths. Why moths? Because they’re gross and scary, of course. (There’s even a word for the fear of them: mottephobia.)

Sure, the movie tries to vague things up a bit. A child psychologist (Daniel Kash) suggests that Mama might not actually exist, but be a dissociative projection of the older girl. But every time he or someone else in the film hints that Mama — who harbours a murderous jealousy of Lucas and Annabel — might be something other than an actual, factual bogeyman, the film reminds us that she’s very, very real. And admittedly, she is pretty creepy.

Presumably guided by executive producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), director Andres Muschietti has created a real monster in Mama. But the only real mystery in the story (written by Muschietti with his sister Barbara and Neil Cross, based on the director’s 2008 short of the same name) isn’t whether Mama exists, what she wants or who she is, but why on earth Victoria and Lilly are so fond of this freak show.

As they scamper around their new home, the girls treat Mama — who keeps popping out of the wall to play with them — like she’s Mother of the Year, when she looks like the Mummy and and acts like Medea. If any of this sounds stupid so far, just wait for the ending. Having already shown us everything, Muschietti has no choice but to pull out all the stops at the film’s over-the-top conclusion, a Grand Guignol finale that not only leaves nothing to the imagination, but leaves the audience feeling less fearful than fatigued.

“Mama” (100 minutes) is PG-13. Contains violent and scary images and thematic elements.