If it’s January, that can mean only one thing: movie studios are dumping whatever crap they have sitting around into theaters. Every year, during a time when the general population is optimistically looking forward to making the next 365 days better than the last, movie studios do their part, albeit in a small way, to prevent that from happening. This week, we have Mama, a film where the most appropriate describing adjective is “stupid.” I suppose for a January release, it’s not half bad, particularly if compared to last year’s genre offering, The Devil Inside, but such praise is faint. Mama is still ridiculous, played out and, worst of all, not scary.
The film stars Jessica Chastain (also in this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film much more worthy of your time) as Annabel. She’s a rocker who is in a serious relationship with Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Five years ago, his twin brother went on a killing spree that culminated in the death of his sister-in-law and kidnapping of his two young nieces. However, on his dash out of state in a car with an ironic vanity plate that reads “N1 DAD,” he spins out of control and they disappear from the public. After a desperate search, Lucas stumbles upon the two girls, Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier, and Lilly, played by Isabelle Nelisse, but his brother is nowhere to be seen. He eventually gains custody of the girls and takes them home after a much needed psychiatric evaluation, due to the imaginary friend the girls developed while stuck in the wild they call Mama. Eventually, weird things start happening around the house and Annabel and Lucas start to wonder if Mama is actually something more than an imaginary friend.
And of course she is. Any question regarding the validity of such supernatural claims are quickly put to rest when Mama presents herself within the first five to ten minutes, before the title card even pops up. The best horror movies keep you guessing and hide its monster, allowing your brain to concoct whatever terrible creature it can. Mama shows its cards way too early. Despite being partly veiled by shadows or shown in silhouette early on, the basic idea of the creature is put in place too early, effectively crushing any build the movie could have had otherwise. To make matters worse, when you finally do get a good look at her, she’s anything but scary and, if we’re being totally honest, looks like Gollum with long, flowing hair and Down syndrome.
For this reason and many others, Mama fails to elicit a sense of dread, much less maintain it like the best horror movies do, like last year’s bone-chiller, Sinister. At its most effective, Mama is unsettling, not because it’s scary, but because, if you know your horror movies enough to predict them, that a loud jump scare is right around the corner. Even if you aren’t a horror movie connoisseur and aren’t privy to the workings of horror movie scares going in, you will be when you come out. Mama picks one tactic and then uses it over and over and over again, ad nauseam. If you don’t figure out the ending beforehand (which you may not given that certain scenes make zero sense in the context of the story), you’ll have nevertheless mapped out the path to it. That’s how utterly clumsy and predictable this movie is.
The most enjoyment one could gather from watching Mama comes from laughing at the sheer silliness of it all, like when the two girls are found and have mentally and physically transitioned into comical spider-like creatures. Additionally, spotting contradictory dialogue exchanges becomes a rather fun game after some time. One standout example comes during a scene when an extraneous side character claims to not be religious and not know much about the afterlife or the supernatural, directly before explaining in great detail the reasoning and motivations behind the persistent ghost. Expository dialogue is looked down upon and for good reason—it’s usually forced in because the filmmakers/screenwriters couldn’t figure out a way to properly convey the story in a less direct and more meaningful way—but I’ve never seen it appear so bluntly and hypocritically.
Mama is a mess. It benefits from having some decent performances, most notably from the talented Jessica Chastain, but even a talented actress such as her can only do so much with such thin characters. With little to move the plot along aside from time-filler dream sequences (some of which actually have additional dream layers within them, like a mini Inception), Mama quickly becomes stagnant and tiresome.
Mama receives 1/5