I’m a fan of Guillermo Del Toro. We’ve established that about as about as solidly as we’ve established that the sun shines and Richard Ayoade is a bespectacled Adonis of a man, so it’s unsurprising that when old Guilly executive produced Mama, a new horror movie starring Jessica Chastain and directed by newcomer Andrés Muschietti, I was chomping at the bit. And by chomping at the bit I mean I meant to see it was in theaters but ended up waiting till it was on DVD.
I’m a horror fan, in as much as I like horror movies on the very very few occasions they aren’t blisteringly awful or more fun in a schlocky, silly way. I like horror movies that actually scare me, and aren’t just vehicles for gore or young girls in sweaty tank tops running around and gasping a lot. My hope going in to Mama was for something new, something interesting and something legitimately scary. While I did certainly get all of those, I also didn’t get a perfect horror movie or even a perfect movie in general, and as good as Mama is, I would be doing it a disservice if I didn’t point out the problems on display.
But first, what’s it about? Judging from the trailers and TV-spots, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was entirely about scary, malnourished, feral children crawling around and being scary as shit, and the Lisbeth Salander-looking chick trying to raise them, and while that is part of it, the trailers and such gave something of a false impression. The story concerns two young girls who spend several years alone in the wild after their father goes ka-ka-koo-koo after the stock market crash and crashes his car into the woods after killing their mum. Years later, the girls are found by their uncle, played by our old friend Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and his rocker chick girlfriend played by Jessica Chastain.
There are a couple of seriously frightening scenes when the girls are first found, with them crawling around and hissing at people, but a few time-lapses later they’re clothed and nourished and significantly less frightening, unless you find quiet blonde children scary and I wouldn’t blame you for that. In spite of what you may think based on the marketing campaign, what we’re meant to be afraid of isn’t the girls, but what raised them while they were having their little wilderness adventure, an entity they call Mama. At first the implication is given that this is some kind of folkloric creature, something someone dug out of a book of Germanic lore or something. But instead, we soon learn that what we’re dealing with is a good old fashioned ghost, which follows the girls and their new parental units back to their shiny new home to terrorize anyone over the age of 10 and make pants-shittingly scary noises.
That’s what brings me to the first really good thing about this movie: The Terrifying Goddamn Sound Design, or TGSD. Normally sound design isn’t something you really pay much attention too, but whoever did the sound for this movie needs to win a medal and a bottle of my terrified piss because I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened by noise alone. The sounds the ghost makes are this awful mix of crying, wails, gurgling noises and what may be someone strangling a goat. It all undulates and echoes and generally makes things terrifying as hell, and when that’s basically the main way the ghost is characterized, that’s a recipe for fear and ruined chairs.
The acting is also very strong, with Chastain pulling off the role of unexpected mother figure quite well. Coster-Waldau is good too, playing the dual role as both the girls father and uncle well and making them each feel like distinctive characters.
However, as we already covered the movie has its fair share of problems, particularly when it comes to the ghost itself. It’s a general rule of thumb that the less you show of something, the scarier it is, which is why the last third or so of the movie, where Mama is fully revealed to be a big pile of CGI, is considerably less scary than what came before, where she was just a Big Pile of Terrifying Goddamn Sound Design and Occasional Fleeting Glimpses, or BPTGSDOFG. Don’t get me wrong, when we fully see her she’s still pretty horrific to look at, all scary long hands and distorted face and wavy hair, but when our imagination was filling in the blanks and the sound effects were pulling the weight, well let’s just say that’s when my sphincter was most tightened in fear.
Also, as good as the sound design and camera movements are, some of the other technical aspects could use a little more work. The image often has this incredibly crisp, overly framed, well-lit quality normally only seen in commercials for cars and fiber-y cereals. The entire ending scene is somewhat horrendous to look at, taking place in a bad fake forest/cliffside bathed in so much unnatural blue light that either someone mysteriously left a spotlight in the middle of the woods or the moon’s become dislodged from its orbit and everyone will be dead from massive earthquakes and tidal fluctuations in a few days anyway.
But really, technical problems aside, what really happens is that Mama just stops being scary at one point. The slow building atmosphere gets replaced by CGI monstrosities jumping out and going boo, and what actually had me frightened before, the subtlety, the less-is-more approach and that Terrifying Goddamn Sound Design. Up until that third act I was ready to call this the best horror movie in years but they really fumbled the ball at the last minute.There’s a lot of talent on display, both from the actors and the director, who proves his storytelling skills in the opening credits alone. But sorta like a Stephen King novel, it all somewhat falls apart in the end when subtlety and pacing are thrown out the window to collide with the windshield of a passing four by four and die with in a ditch full of old Mcdonald’s wrappers.