Friday, June 21, 2013

30 Days of Nightmares #21: MAMA (2013)

The Story: Two young girls are orphaned in a cabin in the woods, but manage to survive with the help of a protective spirit they call "mama."  When they are discovered after five years in the wilderness, they have trouble readjusting to human behavior.

Expectations: As I said in my review of SPLICE, Guillermo del Toro's name-brand can draw me into anything these days.  His track record as an executive producer is a little spotty, but I was hoping for something a little more like THE ORPHANAGE and a little less like DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.

Reaction: What this film reminded me of the most was a 1980s supernatural thriller called LADY IN WHITE.  I saw that film when I was about ten years old, and it scared the shit out of me.  There's a nice creepy Halloween setup, and then a vulnerable-looking little boy gets locked in a cloak room overnight and witnesses a murder there.  Here's the catch: The murder happened years ago, and what he's seeing is a supernatural replay.  The transparent image of the murdered child is unsettling enough, but then comes the revelation that the killer is still alive -- and part of the boy's everyday world.  Late in the story, he encounters a second ghost.... but I really shouldn't give away any more. 

I recently watched LADY IN WHITE as an adult, and I found it hard to suspend my disbelief because the visual effects are so in-your-face.  My adult mind is more easily spooked by the "less is more" approach to ghost stories.  Having said that, the first half of MAMA worked very well for me.  The second half, not so much.  The film has a great slow build, likable characters, and del Toro's trademark fairy tale quality.  In my opinion, the second half relies too much on CGI to visualize the threat.  At times, it seems like a film grasping for a consistent tone -- Are we aiming for J-horror (the black hair and general Rorschach quality of "mama" suggests so) or Tim Burton? 

I suspect the goal is was to appeal equally to both younger viewers and adult audiences.  My memories of watching LADY IN WHITE suggest that MAMA would have worked very well for my ten-year-old self.  Up until the last twenty minutes or so (when the CGI becomes overbearing), it also worked pretty well for me as an adult.... mainly because of solid characterizations.  Jessica Chastain's performance made me forget all about Katie Holmes's boring turn in DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.  In the end, it's a film completely worthy of Guillermo del Toro's name. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Every time that "mama" is in the room, there is a palpable sense of dread.... but I found myself most engaged in scenes where we see the long-term effects of "mama" on the girls.  There's a powerful scene in which Jessica Chastain finds the younger girl sleeping outside, and uses her body to warm the little girl.  At first the girl tries to get away, but when the reluctant mother breathes warm air onto her hands, the girl becomes still and awe-struck... allowing the viewer a moment to understand that this is the first time she has really felt the warmth of a living human being.  Scenes like that make MAMA much more than a casual campfire story.  At its best, this is a human story interrupted by a ghost.  Because the human story is so poignant, the ghost is genuinely scary.


  1. One of the Blu-rays my kids gave my wife this year for Mother's Day. You should have seen the look on her face ;-)

    1. Why didn't I think of that?