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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Mama
Universal // PG-13 // January 18, 2013
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted January 18, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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Despite the fact that Halloween takes place in October, the horror genre has migrated to the month of January. This is the perfect time for the genre to make a decent amount of money without having to directly compete with films that hold Oscar-potential. Mama has received the star treatment from Universal Pictures with the insane amount of marketing and publicity that has been put into the project. Even though this is Andrés Muschietti's first full-length feature, he's working with two Oscar-nominated talents. Guillermo del Toro is an executive producer on the motion picture and Jessica Chastain stars in the main role. Unfortunately, the script's constant struggle to keep its head above water critically hinders the film.

After the tragic death of their mother, young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are left by themselves in a cabin in the middle of the woods. A dangerous spirit begins to take care of the girls, but they become primitive from the lifestyle they're forced to live. Five years later, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are faced with the challenge of raising the two girls. After strange occurrences begin taking place in the house, the couple starts to wonder if something or someone followed the kids from the forest.

Andrés Muschietti originally wrote the initial idea for a short film by the same title. With help from Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, Andrés wrote the screenplay for the motion picture. Horror fans will find the concept itself to be quite appealing, as it has the potential to be extremely creepy. The initial set-up works, but it ultimately falls apart. As the story continues to play out, it feels as if Muschietti ran out of content and wasn't sure where to take the plot, so he embraced an unnecessary subplot surrounding a woman trying to prove child abuse that isn't taking place, and numerous irritating clichés that the horror genre has to offer. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a horror picture that doesn't fill itself to the brim with jump scares. While there are a couple good jolts, the majority of them are predictable and repetitive. Instead of building genuine tension, Mama takes every opportunity possible to make loud noises and sudden movements. There's absolutely no substitute for true nail-biting suspense.

Mama provides a group of one-dimensional characters. The most appealing character is Annabel, but we only get to see the tip of the iceberg with her. I was hoping that her character would be more involved, but we don't get the chance to explore the character's past or motivation. Mama's backstory is simple as could be, as no effort is made to make her different from other horror antagonists. The remainder of the roles feel like genre fodder, as well. The characters are so disconnected from the audience that it's difficult to care about what happens to them. We should be rooting for Annabel and Lucas to live happily ever after with the girls, but there aren't even any emotional connections between them.

Fortunately, the screenplay offers acceptable dialogue. This picture delivers some light humor to contrast from the jump scares. The jokes aren't all great, but some of them work enough to generate some intentional laughs. The majority of these moments come from Annabel's behavior towards Victoria and Lilly. The script provides hints of decent material, but the problems come from the route taken by the writers. A solid concept is taken along a path that feels far too familiar and the ending can be seen from miles away. Once the credits start rolling, you'll feel that the filmmakers finished the picture in the most convenient way possible.

There isn't a lot that can be done with these roles, but the performances aren't bad. Jessica Chastain changes things up as Annabel. This isn't the type of role one would expect from her, but she manages to deliver a solid performance with the material she's been given. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a bit flat as Lucas, especially when delivering his dialogue. I had a difficult time believing him as the caring uncle. Megan Charpentier does a relatively good job as Victoria. She manages the character's behavioral transitions quite well, especially through the second act. Isabelle Nélisse does just as well in the role of the younger child, Lilly. Given the empty-shell characters these actors are working with, these performances are well-above average.

An appropriate atmosphere is absolutely crucial to any horror film. Mama does a fantastic job with the ambience. Nearly every scene in the house is dark and dreary. Andrés Muschietti keeps Mama hidden for the first half of the picture, but he should have kept her in the shadows the entire feature. Some of the practical effects are great, but there's a lot of unwelcome CGI. It removes any creepiness this antagonist gained in the darkness, as she becomes unintentionally humorous. The absolute opposite can be said about the audio track. Mama constantly utilizes the surround sound with everything from floors creaking to Mama's convincing rustling to keep viewers looking over their shoulder.

With such a weak script, it makes me wonder what drew Guillermo del Toro and Jessica Chastain to this project. Even though Mama had a great deal of potential, it runs out of steam extremely quickly. The core concept is decent, but it ultimately walks down a predictable path. It isn't scary and the characters aren't interesting enough to pull this along on their own. Some of the jump scares work, but they ultimately become repetitive. This picture could have greatly benefited from a lot more suspense. Mama's goal is to make young teenage girls scream at as many loud jolts possible. Even with its serious flaws, it's worth renting with a group of friends.

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