Runtime: 1 HR, 40 MIN
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Writers: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabella Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat, and Javier Botet
Between the Academy Award nominated Zero Dark Thirty and the possible Razzie hopeful Mama theatergoers have a lot of options available right now if they have a Jessica Chastain itch that they have to scratch. It’s not unheard of for a critical darling to have a somewhat forgettable film released the same year as another film that has earned them a lot of praise. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence experienced that very situation with the release of The House on the End of the Street being sandwiched between the release of The Hunger Games and her Oscar nominated performance in The Silver Linings Playbook. What is odd is when the award nominated film is widely released one week before the head scratching horror film that the star would probably like to turn down now in hindsight.
After being left in the wilderness for five years two young girls, Victoria and Lilly have been brought back to civilization to live with their Uncle and his girlfriend. The girls slowly begin to acclimate to their new surroundings, but it soon becomes clear that they didn’t comeback from the woods alone.
Mama isn’t a complete disaster, it could have been much worse. First off, thankfully it’s not a found footage film, it’s almost jarring to see actual cinematography in a horror film these days since found footage has become so prevalent. Clocking in at an appropriate 100 minutes the first half of Mama is reasonably tolerable. Also working in the film’s favor is that the two child stars don’t ruin the film. The youngest actress isn’t great, but she’s not Jake Lloyd bad so there’s always that. Apart from these backhanded compliments Mama is still pretty lousy.
Jessica Chastain‘s inclusion in Mama feels very bizarre; if I didn’t know better already I would say Mama was filmed before The Help. Originally Mama was set to be released in October 2012 but it was then moved to January 2013 a week after the wide release of Zero Dark Thirty. Coincidence? I doubt it. Describing her performance comes down to one word, ‘uninspired.’ Both her and her character act too good to be there and are too bothered to give a damn and it shows. Dressing her up like Rooney Mara from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and showing her living an ‘alternative’ lifestyle is about as far as her character development goes.
Like many run of the mill horror films Mama falls prey to several common horror mistakes, namely lack of logical thinking and showing the audience too much. Not once, but twice do characters knowingly travel at night to a mysterious supernatural cabin located deep in the woods. They don’t even bother to alert anyone of where they’re going or take buddy with them. As with many horror films, especially the ones that involve researching an important past event, there is the crazy looking old man or woman that just happens to believe in the supernatural that can point the cast in the right direction. Earlier I mentioned that the first half of Mama was ‘tolerable,’ my level of tolerance dropped significantly after you start seeing Mama up close. The filmmakers started off with the right idea, they showed the audience just enough, but when they finally pulled back the proverbial curtain Mama went from being a mildly intriguing villain to being confused with the long lost sister of Charles ‘Corky’ Thacher (look it up folks). It’s doubtful that was the filmmaker’s intention, but the resemblance is striking.
The most unbelievable aspect of Mama is a personal one for me. Throughout the film there is an adorable full size Dachshund living in the ‘haunted’ house. I’ve been a lifetime owner of Dachshunds and I know their behavior well; they are fiercely loyal, protective, stubborn, and they of course bark… a lot. The Dachshund in Mama shows some of these traits but he never barks, not once, at anything. Gunshot- no barking, supernatural creaking noises- no barking, screams of horror from the owners and children- no barking, someone breaking into the house- no barking. I find the idea of a ghost from the woods haunting the home of the two feral children more believable than the fact that their Dachshund never barks.
Mama isn’t terrible, but it is terribly forgettable. Jessica Chastain appears to be bored, most of the characters are dull, and the villain appears to have Down Syndrome. Working in the film’s favor are the above average child actors, some of the effects are decent, and there’s the cute albeit unrealistic Dachshund. Overall Mama is just another style over substance horror film that will have you shaking your head with embarrassed laughter far more often than it will have you jumping in your seat.