Mama tells the story of two young girls who, through a series of unfortunate events, are abandoned at a remote cabin in the woods and survive there for five years as feral children. They are found and brought back to civilization to live with their uncle (Nikolaj Koster-Waldau) and his punk-rocker girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). The older girl– nine or ten now — can speak and more or less readjusts to civilization, but the younger remains a beastly, gnashing little creature, scuttling across rooms on all fours like some combination of cheetah and crab. What’s more, the girls didn’t spend those five years in the woods alone. Something was there with them — a presence they call “Mama” — and they may have brought it back.
Good. There are a number of fascinating approaches to this, some of which the movie itself suggests. One possibility is that the creature at the center of this film is in fact essentially benign — a loving, misunderstood visitor from the beyond. This is the angle that the film seems to pursue in its dynamite opening scenes, which masterfully use suggestion, offscreen space, and one character’s impaired point of view to suggest a frightening otherworldly thing whose motivations are nonetheless uncertain, and quite possibly benevolent. Shortly after the girls are brought to their new home (a “case study” suburban house overseen by a shady psychiatrist), there’s a phenomenal shot in which we see the girls’ bedroom in half the frame and a hallway in the other half; we see the younger girl in the bedroom happily playing with… something, and what we see in the hallway makes clear it’s not her sister. It’s at once funny and genuinely chilling: ghosts and demons aren’t supposed to play friendly games of blanket tug of war with little girls wh0 clearly love them and need them. Something about the notion that this isn’t some sort of killer vengeful spirit but rather “Mama” is disquieting in a way movies like this usually aren’t.
The film quickly abandons this, making clear that Mama doesn’t mean well — certainly not for the girls’ guardians, and maybe not for the girls either. It then briefly moves on to something else: for a second, it seems that Mama might be about the girls’ slow and sad realization that their Mama is actually kind of horrifying. This, too, is an interesting thought. Loads of good horror — maybe all of it — concerns characters who discover that there is something sinister ingrained in the world they think they know. There are some interesting implications to having that thing be our young protagonists’ heretofore beloved guardian and provider.
Both of these ideas are present in Mama, but they go almost totally unexplored. Instead, the film — which fittingly began life as a short — turns into a rote, protracted take on the imitation J-horror of The Ring and The Grudge. Mama is a malevolent ghost with stringy black hair, contorted joints, and arbitrary powers to terrify and maim. She spends the last half of the film jumping out at people and making (admittedly pretty creepy) howling noises. She gets a maudlin and unhelpful backstory, dispensed through visions the characters randomly have. The film’s misconceived shittiness is epitomized by a brief late-film sequence in which Mama, her eyes on the younger of the two girls, slowly spreads her arms in an offer of an embrace — a scary, indelible image that a split-second later is nullified by a cheap scare. The director, Andres Muschietti, makes his feature debut here, and doesn’t have the technical chops to sustain tension once he ditches the parts of his story that are conceptually intriguing. Once the film becomes a conventional horror show, it deflates remarkably fast.
It’s easy to see what drew producer Guillermo del Toro to this project: he loves ambiguous monsters with a core of relatability, and that’s what Mama seems to offer. But it doesn’t deliver on that promise. Maybe it worked better as a short, where Muschietti’s basic conceit could just sort of hang there, terrifying in its implications. Forced to stretch the story to 100 minutes, he kills the mystery in search of scares he never finds.
— Eugene Novikov