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‘Mama,’ I’m Staying Home

by Brian Reeves on January 18, 2013

in Print Reviews,Reviews

mama-poster-2013I love horror movies. Let’s just get that out of the way first.

I own a ton of them, and have watched way more. Hell, during college, my roommate and I watched every single VHS tape they had in the horror section at Hastings. Slumber Party Massacre, Silent Night Deadly Night, Bride of the Monster, every single Hellraiser, from B-movies to big budget Hollywood horror, I’ve watched a lot of horror both good and bad. (Sometimes REALLY, REALLY bad.) None of this any anything to do with the film Mama, but I just thought I should give you an idea of where I come from when I write about horror films. I’m a fan, not a movie critic, and I hope to keep it that way when I talk about horror films.

Like I said, I love horror movies, but sometimes it’s hard being in love when the thing you love doesn’t love you back. And let’s face it, most of the time horror movies are made cheaper and dirtier than a dimestore hooker. They insult our intelligence and regurgitate the same old cliches over and over, a problem expertly picked apart by 2012’s almost perfect Cabin in the Woods. Mama never comes off as cheap or dirty, but unfortunately the horror cliches and leaps of logical faith it forces the viewer to endure weigh it down to the point of typical PG-13 horror lite fare.

mama-movie-review-del-toro-chastainMama is pretty much a ghost story, with a little bit of a dark fairy tale vibe thrown in. The premise is simple: Two small girls are saved from their murdering father by a ghost, who raises them in the woods until they are discovered five years later. The girls are returned to their uncle (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) and his bass-playing rock n’ roll girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), who now has to try and be a mother figure to the troubled children. Of course the ghost doesn’t what to give up the girls that easily and follows them to their new home. Lots of spookiness and loud-bang sound editing and jump scares ensue.

Brought to you by first-time director Andres Muschietti and producer Guillermo del Toro, this extension of Muschietti’s 2008 short film of the same name, does a number of things very well. The sound and shot selection certainly do create a heavy atmosphere of dread and tension. The ghost creature is well-rendered CGI and certainly feels creepy enough. Jessica Chastain gives a good performance as a woman trying to be a quality caretaker for these two girls, and strikes a nice balance between bravery in face of danger, and terror at the obviously supernatural things happening around her. And the youngest girl of the two sisters (Isabelle Nélisse) always manages to keep the creepy-kid factor at a high level as well. The movie has a very similar tone to 2001’s del Toro-directed The Devil’s Backbone,although it’s nowhere near as good.

mama-movie-reviewBut the script. My oh my, the script. It’s full of plot holes the size of moon craters and enough cliches to seem like A Horror Film: The Paint by Numbers Version. Mama just couldn’t keep me from rolling my eyes and shaking my head at every turn. Let’s run trough a partial list of the cliches shall we?

– Run down shack in the woods: check
– Creepy minor key lullabyesque kiddie sing along: check
– Doctor who knows important life saving information but keeps it to himself: check
– Character drives alone to known haunted place in daylight; searches it in dark with single flashlight: check
– Inability to communicate despite modern cell phone technology being present: check
– Ghost/monster who’s motivations change constantly depending on the plot needs: check
– Escaped mental asylum patient: check
– Random voiceover narration from secondary character so we know his “motivation” for doing something stupid: check
– Character sneaks out of hospital without checking out and no one seems to notice or care: check
– Instructions to, “Don’t open that door” : check
– Supporting character so destined for death from the get go their name might as well be Startrek Redshirt: check
– Wake up twice from the same dream because the first one was still part of the dream: check
– Ominous warnings from ancillary character asking if you believe in ghosts and evil: check
– Monster kills main character only to find out they aren’t really dead: check (twice)

mama-movie-review… and on and on. The gaping plot holes may even be worse. The two small girls we’re told are malnourished move around like a combination of Gollum and Nadia Comaneci on cocaine. A search team is looking for the missing girls, even though based on what we’ve been presented in the story there’s absolutely no reason for them to be looking in that spot other than, the plot requires it. Also, charaters use a bloodhound to track a five-year-old trail in the woods. Wait, I want to go back to that one for emphasis. A bloodhound tracks a FIVE-YEAR-OLD TRAIL IN THE WOODS! Ugh, I think you get the point, and I’m not even going to touch the ending, which has enough problems for this review to ramble on even longer that it already has.

Ultimately, Mama is long on atmosphere and really short on brains. Since it’s not a total failure, I’ll give it a minor rock fist down because it does manage to create some nice tension in spots. I suppose it’s scary enough for the PG-13 demographic it’s shooting for, but for the hardcore horror fan, do yourself a watch your blu-ray of Cabin in the Woods again, or check out The Devil;s Backbone if you haven’t seen it.

But if you do decide to pay a visit to your Mama, don’t say I didn’t warn you to “Don’t open that door.”

Brian loves horror movies, old-school heavy metal, and beer — not necessarily in that order. He also digs all the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and is willing to fight people who actually think the Paranormal Activity series is scary because it’s not.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin January 18, 2013 at 9:45 am

Great review, Brian! I mentioned the cliches but didn’t go into nearly the amount of detail you did in my review here. Here’s the problem: filmmakers going for mainstream horror hits (not the thriving underground indie festival horror scene) know that mainstream horror audiences expect everything to be explained. They should have let more things stay more ambiguous …


2 Rachelle January 18, 2013 at 10:11 am

Thanks Brian. I only saw the previews and figured it to be exactly like your review. I love horror films, but I have learned not to trust horror films that are not rated R. And what passes for mainstream horror is typically awful, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch any of the Paranormal Activity movies.


3 Ricky Shambles February 1, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Great review, Brian. I took my daughter to the movie tonight (father/daughter horror [she’s 16] is our bonding time), and we both came out with the same thought: Way above some of the tripe that comes out of Hollywood …and then there were the last five minutes.

I think the director looked at the last five minutes and said “Well, I’m going to lose no matter what; let’s make it the worst possible. We’ll switch this all-powerful demon-ghost to desperation and have her aim to kill what she was totally just killing to protect. She can now possess people, and the doc and aunt’s deaths we’ll sweep under the rug. She’ll kill Dad and people will be like ‘Oh, no, Dad’s dead’ but will accept it because sometimes there are casualties and they’re okay with the three girls living strong. Then we split the girls. Fuck. Child services, anyone? LOL. Okay, what’s happening? Possession changes to full-corporeal transformation for Deus Ex Machina powers and – oh, remember how you were okay with the girls? Dad’s back. LOL! BOOM! Mama and the kid explode into bugs and everyone else lives in jail forever. OMFG!”


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