The biggest disappointment of the year so far, Mama is a feeble and thoroughly ridiculous horror from Guillermo Del Toro. Now working more as a prolific producer than a director (his recent efforts include Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Puss in Boots and Rise of the Guardians), Del Toro is becoming something of a brand name to be slapped on posters. Though this supernatural jump-fest purports to be presented by ‘the creator of Pan’s Labyrinth’, it has none of that movie’s charm, imagination or depth.
Co-written and directed by Andrés Muschietti, who made the 2008 short upon which it is based, sets the scene rather efficiently, with a panicked father driving like a maniac along an icy road. Something terrible has happened and he is desperate to get away from his home. His two children are with him, and when he loses control of the car the three seek shelter in an abandoned cabin in a forest. From within, a strange force takes control of them. After this we then cut to the present day. Some years have gone by, but the father’s twin brother (played by the same actor, Headunters’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) hasn’t given up hope of finding the missing three. The girls are eventually found, but they have gone wild and there is no sign of their father. So the hot uncle and his goth partner (Jessica Chastain) take the kids in.
The early scenes involving the children evoke stories of intense privation, such as the one depicted in Samira Makhmalbaf’s poignant film The Apple. Unlike that film, Mama doesn’t attempt to make any deep social comments. To be fair, this film never lies about what it is: it is a horror movie. And supernatural nonsense makes up the main bulk of the running time.
This is the type of film that could have been really terrifying if Muschietti had stuck to a less-is-more mentality. Sadly, he soaks the movie in ill-conceived CGI. Some of the moments feature the most unconvincing computer effects seen in a mainstream horror movie for a long time. And as soon as we see the evil force in all its fakery the atmosphere is ruined forever.
As I said in my review for Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain is a superb actor, but even her talents can’t rescue this dire little picture. Though she does her best to inject energy and personality into her underwritten role, the fear her character conveys is impossible to empathise with. The film just isn’t very scary.
The final scenes aspire to the moving closing moments moments of Pan’s Labyrinth, but this does not prove to be a flattering creative decision. The climax is a mixture of absurd coincidences, garbled plot explanations and ineffectual attempts at profundity. It’s an insult to the viewer’s intelligence, and a particularly gruesome final reveal borders on the distasteful.
Universal Pictures has orchestrated a clever marketing campaign for the film. You’ve probably seen the posters all over shopping centres and inside newspapers. I’m sad to report that the promotional materials for the movie are far creepier and more interesting than the movie itself. Such a pity.
Mama (2013), directed by Andrés Muschietti, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15. It is released on 22 February.