Though Guillermo del Toro has always been considered a great visual director by critics, it wasn’t until Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 that he really made an impact on cinema. Audiences were drawn to del Toro’s dark and surreal fantasy, hailing what is a wonderfully haunting fairytale for the modern world. In recent years however, del Toro has stepped back as a director but continues his influence by writing and producing a number of movies – such as Peter Jackson’s recent prequel, The Hobbit. His style can be felt across some of these features, particularly those in the horror genre. 2011’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, for example, had del Toro’s fingerprints all over it, and so does the recent Mama, produced by del Toro but directed, under heavy influence, by Andres Muschietti. The movie’s marketing, understanding del Toro’s pull on the West, has heavily played up the director’s involvement, though its fair to say the movie falls far short of del Toro’s own offerings.
The film opens with a father, who, after murdering his business partner and wife, kidnaps his two young children – played by Megan Charpentier and Isabella Nélisse – and drives away with uncertain plans. The car hits trouble on the icy mountain roads and crashes in the woods – forcing the father and his kids to take refuge in a creepy, abandoned cabin, which it turns out, isn’t quite so abandoned afterall, with a host who isn’t best pleased with the intrusion. Cut forward five years, the father’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) comes across the kids after a prolonged rescue mission; both surprisingly alive but somewhat feral, and with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) decides to take the kids in. Little do Lucas and Annabel know that the reason for the children’s miraculous survival lies with Mama – the eerie monster spirit from the woods which has kept the kids alive over the years and may not want to see them leave. Horror ensues.
Mama started life as a three minute long short which impressed del Toro so much that he made it feature length, keeping Muschietti as director. The short, which is available on YouTube, is genuinely creepy; proving that all horror needs is a brief flash to frighten, and that sudden, inexplicable scenes can be very unsettling indeed. That kind of strange, what-did-I-just-see horror is difficult to sustain across an hour and a half feature however, and generally, Mama really struggles from its blown-up plot. The initial concept is actually quite original, but the joints quickly begin to show and the writing is frankly lazy throughout, with the exposition-inducing psychiatrist standing out as poor. Then there’s the frustrating fact that the audience know the plot from the start and have to wait for the characters to catch up. Watching Mama is a fairly disjointed experience, with the clumsy plot making the film feel far longer than it actually is; for a horror movie it’s simply not very tight.
In terms of horror too, Mama just isn’t very horrifying. The film steals considerably – primarily from Asian genre-flicks The Ring and The Grudge, and tonally feels too similar to The Orphanage and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, with del Toro’s style actually wearing thin here – we’ve seen everything here before. The scares themselves aren’t very engaging or particularly imaginative, made up of tired and predictable ‘jump’ moments which never manage to shock. Muschietti isn’t a bad director and does create a few eerie scenes – the children playing with an off-screen presence, Annabel mistaking the monster for one of the girls as it slinks into a cupboard – but these moments are few and far between. Mama herself is a good movie monster, heavy with del Toro’s influence. The creature’s disjointed movements and croaking sounds are fantastic, but her uncanny nature is ruined by overexposure – we see enough of Mama in the first ten minutes to get an idea of her design, and as the film progresses, we see so much of the monster that her fear-factor plummets.
Worse still, she reeks of CGI and is given a dull backstory – nothing hurts horror more than exposition; the more we know, the less we fear. The movie is also undercut by over-familiar tropes, such as the creepy children, a concept which has been done to death and really isn’t effective anymore, and the silly, schmaltzy ending – del Toro is rapidly becoming the Spielberg of horror with his push for family values and sentimentality, themes which have no place within the genre.
Mama is a fairly damp horror movie, light on the actual scares but heavy on the silly, with an original concept giving way to tired, repetitive ‘boo’ moments and overly sentimental plot developments. It’s an interesting movie when compared with its far more effective YouTube predecessor, pointing out the damaging nature of plot-expansion and the benefits of brevity to the genre. Mama struggles to fill its feature length and if you’ve ever watched a scary movie in the last decade, there’ll be nothing new for you here.