Mama is upfront about what’s in store: “Once upon a time…” it opens. Part horror movie, part fairy tale, it’s not hard to see what Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth fame) saw in this. At the same time, it isn’t the horrific or the fantastical that won me over, but the characters and their relationships. This is a horror movie with some heart, with a cast that’s so much more than the typical roster of ground beef for the horror movie meatgrinder.
Mama opens with a tragedy. It’s unclear what truly happened, but the end result leaves two little girls lost in the woods with two dead parents. When their father’s twin brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally finds them, they’re emaciated, feral, but alive. Suddenly burdened with two very troubled children, Lucas elects the help of his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
It’s not long before their house is brimming with creepy sounds and bumps in the night. The two girls, Victoria and Lilly, dash around on all fours and leap out from the shadows. That’s creepy enough, but it’s clear that someone else has tagged along for the ride.
Supernatural horror aside, Mama’s strength is in its development of the two girls and their relationship with Annabel and their eponymous “Mama.” The older girl, Victoria, quickly begins walking upright again, speaks, and grows fond of her adoptive family. Meanwhile Lilly struggles to adapt, finding comfort in the dark presence of Mama. Annabel, often left alone with this creepy pair, has plenty of motivation to dump Lucas and run for the hills, but shows her strength throughout the film.
There are strong themes and character motivations at play here. These are easy characters to root for, and the drama between them is heartfelt. I’d go so far as to say Mama would be a more successful film if it downplayed the supernatural horror entirely.
The concept of feral children and the mystery surrounding Mama is genuinely creepy. The problem is when Mama starts to show her face more often. Cartoonish, distractingly bad CG interrupts a lot of what this film has going for it. It’s unfortunate because there’s little to no reason Mama couldn’t be portrayed using practical effects. Less is more in most horror, and Mama is a glutton for showing you everything by the end.
The decision to go all out also takes a lot of credibility away from the ending. On paper it works as a nice bookend to this fairytale horror story, but the poor CG only brings to light some of the problems with Mama’s origin and her connection with the children. That it ultimately boils down to an unnecessarily complicated ghost story really takes away from film’s strengths.
There’s a lot to like about Mama, moreso if you’re oblivious to bad CG effects. If cartoon monsters still put chills down your spine then feel free to add another star to my rating and rush out to the theater. For me, it’s the feeling of lost potential that really hurts this film. It has so much going for it, with well-developed characters that are so rare in horror, but squanders it all in the name of showing the audience everything. It’s an honest effort, though, and I hope to see someone take a page or two from Mama’s playbook and make a better film.