Mama – Blu-ray review
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier
By Brian M. Sammons
This new fright flick is produced by Guillermo del Toro, as the front of the new Blu-ray from Universal proudly exclaims. It has all the hallmarks of the man: Kids, ghosts, and a mystery that needs to be unraveled, but it lacks that del Toro feeling that can make an otherwise basic premise so much more than the sum of its parts. That’s because this movie isn’t written or directed by del Toro but is helmed by first-time feature director Andrés Muschietti. He does an OK job; neither excelling nor falling flat on his face and sadly, that’s all that can be said for Mama as a whole. While I do give it loads of credit for not being yet another horror remake, it does have that “hey, I’ve seen this all before” feel to it. It’s a basic ghost story, with only a few slight alterations to the standard plot. Also more than once it walks right up to the line of being really scary, but then it stops, afraid to step over that line and be too terrifying, lest it not get that oh-so lucrative PG-13 rating that it so desperately wanted. But enough generalities, let’s not keep Mama waiting and get to the overview.
The movie begins with a man having a really bad day. He shoots his business partners and his wife and then makes a run for it with his two little daughters. Along the way his car loses control on an icy road and goes off the side of a cliff and into the woods. Before long the homicidal daddy is out of the picture and the two little girls are left to fend for themselves in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. But are they really all alone?
Cut to five years later and the girls’ uncle has never given up on finding his brother or his nieces. That persistence pays off as the two girls are found, having reverted into an almost feral state in order to survive. They are cleaned up, looked over by a psychologist with obvious ulterior motives, and give to their uncle and his rocker chick girlfriend to raise. But the question remains, how could two little girls survive in the wilderness?
That answer is a spirit named Mama, the ghost of a woman who has adopted the little girls as her own and is both deadly jealous and protective of them. As you could expect, Mama isn’t happy that the girls have been taken in by someone else. Oh and no, that’s not a spoiler here. What could have been played for a bit of a mystery is instead revealed pretty much as soon as this movie begins, which I felt was a big misstep. A second stumble happens almost every time they show the ghostly Mama. She is a CGi creation, and if used sparingly and in the shadows, as she is for the first half of this film, then she’s passable. But as the movie progresses, more and more of Mama is show, she’s on screen for longer and longer, and she just looks horrible. No, not as in she’s frightening to look at, I mean that she looks like a Playstation videogame graphic on the loose. When Mama shows up towards the end of this movie, what is meant to be horrifying instead turns out to be unintentionally hilarious. Any sort of tension and suspense the movie was trying to build up is shattered again and again by Mama’s digital doofiness. You would think that now in 2013 moviemakers finally start to realize that CGI characters, especially any based on anything remotely human, do not have what it takes to be believable looking, let alone frightening. But no, I guess not.
Poor technical decisions aside, this movie is rather on the generic and bland side and that’s a shame, because you can see some potential around the edges. The acting is pretty good by all involved, and that includes the kids who are usually horrible when it comes to horror. There are moments where the atmosphere works well and the creep factor starts to rise, but sadly those are few and far between. The movie is hampered with a clichéd plot and characters, but it does have one nice turn of the “appease the ghost and make it happy” trope at the end. It also does a few good misdirections, although it does lean on a few a bit too often. Of special note, I really enjoyed the music and I thought the cinematography was pretty good. Although there was one scene where the rocking reluctant mother figure is telling the girls that it’s very late and they have to go to bed, and yet there was so much (moonlight, I guess) coming through their window that it looks to be high noon outside.
Now on to the extras on this new Blu-ray from Universal. First and foremost there is a feature commentary with director/co-writer Andrés Muschietti and producer/co-writer Barbara Muschietti. There are some deleted scenes that add nothing to the story and therefore not really worth a watch. There is a featurette called “The Birth of Mama” and a Blu-ray exclusive featurette on the visual effects of Mama. Last but not last is the best extra on the disc, a short movie that served as the bases for this movie that is introduced by Guillermo del Toro.
Mama is one of those maddening middle of the road movies. It’s neither horrible, nor is it great. It has moments of creepiness, but I never thought it was truly frightening, which could be blamed in part on its woefully unneeded PG-13 rating. It occasionally has decent atmosphere, and yet that is often ruined by crappy looking CGI. It does get a pile of points from me for not being yet another remake, reimagining, or re-whatever. For that reason alone, I can give this movie at least a partial recommendation. If you’re a fan of ghostly movies you’ll certainly like this movie more than the gorehounds out there. If all that seems like a lot of provisos for a recommendation, that’s because it is. Ultimately for me, Mama could have been easily called Meh: The Movie. It’s a film and you can watch it. You probably won’t hate it, but I doubt you’ll love it either. If you want to give it a watch and judge for yourself, you can pick up this Blu-ray on May 7th.