One of the scarier trailers I’ve seen in the past year belongs to director Andrés Muschietti’s film Mama, which came out in theaters on January 18. The trailer leaves an incredible amount to the imagination, allowing the viewer to fill in the terror of whoever or whatever the titular Mama is. Unfortunately, the movie itself does not make room for this kind of imaginative work by the audience. The tried and true maxim that it’s the monster you don’t see that is scarier than the one you do see is not one obeyed here. Mama is, in one form or another, quickly shown and her appearance becomes clearer throughout the movie, and ultimately this undermines the substantial potential that Mama shows.
This loss of terror is a shame, given that the movie has some really great ideas. Drawn from a Spanish language short film that Muschietti did in 2008, the movie tells the story of two daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) who are left in your standard horror movie pre-fab cabin in the woods, for five years. When they are found, questions naturally arise as to how they survived as a child and baby. The girls attribute their success to a guardian called Mama that seems to reside in the walls and encourage them to run around on all fours.
The girls’ paternal uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has spent everything he has looking for them, takes over custody with his “rock and roll” girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Set against them is the well to do maternal Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) who wants to provide for the children with her substantial means. The psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) in charge of the children sides with Lucas and provides a house owned by the institution he works for, all in the name of being allowed to continue to work with the girls.
In the process of his work, and their new foster parent’s experience, the existence of an actual entity called Mama is first suspected and then confirmed. Some of the standard ghost story tropes enter the story here, and strangely enough bring with them some of the strongest elements of the movie. The story, as laid out, is contrived, with one rather unbelievable convenience after another. But the background elements to Mama’s story are actually quite good and well depicted.
The end of the movie is unsatisfying. In a post The Ring world, movie-makers must decide if they will exorcise their ghosts, make them greater threats, or do something else. This is glaringly evident here, as the movie looks as if it will go in one direction, then another, and finally settles on its somewhat disturbing ending. By disturbing, I mean that it is disturbing that the writers and director thought that the final scene could actually be comforting, which is what I think they were trying to convey.
Considering the source material, the 2008 short film, this movie could have gone in a number of directions. The one that was chosen unfortunately squanders much of the potential of the original work. The use of a CG monster instead of practical also effects hurts this movie immeasurably. Yet, the strength of the acting, especially by Charpentier, Nélisse, and Chastain makes the movie worth watching. And the times when the movie does slip into the traditional ghost story are also worth a look.
Theologically, there’s not much new or interesting here. What is interesting is what the movie does not do. For a film called Mama, one might expect that the new foster mother might pose a real threat to the ghostly Mama. There is no Sigourney Weaver moment from Aliens in which the role of Mother is taken on by Chastain’s character as provider and defender of the children. The role of Mother, which we understand as an image of the divine relationship with humanity, should be a role that is more explicitly in contention here. Instead, if the director means for us to make the link, he is reticent to point it out.
Finally, something more should be said about the ending of the film, and I’ll give a spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph (and will return to spoiler free territory in the next). The movie’s ending, in which Mama takes Lilly with her into some kind of bright light evaporation, seems confused. She throws away the remains of her actual child, and then takes the life of yet another child. Bright white light appears, indicating that we should think there is some kind of redemption or salvation here, but this is not a resolution that seems congruous with the source of all light. Instead, madness, grief, and the twisted remains of a human soul have won out. Heaven is expressly not the power that would bring this hellish relationship to its culmination.
Mama misses a lot of its potential impact, and yet remains worth watching. One hopes that director Andrés Muschietti would consider dropping the CG monster for most of the rest of his next film. A story about a “Mama” that in fact might or might not exist, seems to be a potentially much scarier movie. The extremely close adherence to the original short film seems to have hindered, not helped one of the earliest entries into the horror genera for 2013.