Like one of the child protagonists in Mama, the movie cannot find its legs, wildly scampering about and moving from a promising premise to a kitchen sink approach in a desperate play to make this a full-length movie. Based on a brilliant, intensely creative 3-minute short by Andres Muschietti, the full-length Guillermo Del Toro-produced film careens from presenting one red herring after another and loses grasp of the crux of Muschietti’s idea, the fairly innovative “Mom is mad at us. But wait… Mom is actually a ghost.”
The movie opens in a straight-out-of-Let The Right One In wintery scene, with a financial-crisis-aggrieved father, having just murdered his estranged wife and business partner, driving on a snowy road with his scared two little girls in the back seat. There is a grim finality to his intentions, undoubtedly, since he’s a broken man on a tortuous road with a dead end. Muschietti’s cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, with a crispness and an enthralling clarity not commonly seen in ghost story flicks. Dad’s plan is thwarted by Mama, who as the little girl points out, “does not walk on the ground.”
Five years pass. The girls, Victoria (Megan Carpenter) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are discovered, having somehow survived alone in the wilderness, turning feral in the process, crawling and scampering about on all fours, scared at any sound and barely human. They are taken in to live with their Uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock-band-playing girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), to whom this all seems like one big nuisance putting a damper on her bon vivant lifestyle. Obvious nod to a familiar trope: when was the last time in a horror film that adopting children was a good idea? This is the first major issue with the film. The very Flowers In The Attic set-up is ripe with psychological material for exploration. At the same time, there is a fine line to tread between queasy voyeurism of the results of child neglect and a compassionate inquiry into it. Most of what we are presented with is through the lens of the girls’ sessions with a therapist, who we later come to realize has some questionable fame-seeking tendencies, and this is the part of the movie where things start to hit the hokey spectrum fast. Speaking of the therapist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), displays some typical horror movie inanity. He runs out of the house as soon as he gets a whiff of Mama, but then right away goes in search of her in the abandoned creepy cottage in the middle of the woods, of course. Because we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Another major flaw with the film is that less than even half way through, the audience already knows what Mama is searching for when a well-meaning librarian ominously declares that a ghost is an “emotion bent out of shape, bound to repeat itself until the wrong is made right.” Therein is the crux of the problem with Mama. For the first good three quarters of the movie, it is eerie and atmospheric and scary and then all of a sudden, it bafflingly turns into a sloppy hodgepodge of clues meant to somehow make the story more believable but are really *gaping* plot holes that serve to unravel it and make less believable instead. Oh, Mama is a ghost, but she needs a hole in the wall to pass through!? No, seriously. Oh, Mama is searching for something but when she is handed it, she quickly tosses it aside. Oh, the Doctor tells Mama he has something that she is looking for, but oopsie daisie, he forgot it in the office. And the ending will literally having you howling with laughter as it looks plucked straight out of where-CGI-goes-to-die-archives, soft light glow bathing things, things breaking up into dust particles and butterflies, and the family clinging to each other at the edge of the cliff, literally.
The ingeniousness of the original short lies in the interaction between Mama and the girls. It had the absorbing and equally disturbing absurdity that the very banal “Mama is mad at me,” situation takes on when Mama is not human. There is enough horror even in the opening of the closet door. It would be intriguing to explore how Lilly and Victoria respond to her differently. All of this rich material seems left to languish, untouched, in favor of vapid scare tactics. Mama has so much potential that ends up ghostly vanishing into thin air, but it does offer some good old-fashioned, mercifully-gore-free frights.