Mama is about a crappy father who offs his wife, grabs his two girls and drives off the road because he’s crappy at that too. Amazingly enough, they survive the crash, so dad takes the girls to abandoned cabin nearby. Once they’re inside, he takes out a gun and puts it to his kid’s head just like any good parent would. But before he can pull the trigger, his ass gets snatched up by some thing in the darkness. Years later, his twin brother continues to search for his nieces. Just when he’s about to give up, he stumbles upon the cabin and the girls, both of whom are still very much alive and pretty damn ferile for their age. Since he can’t just leave them there, he assumes legal guardianship and moves into a new house with them. He and his girlfriend (who hates kids, by the way) do their best to play parents, but as they eventually come to realize, some thing isn’t too keen on the idea.
Once upon a time, slapping “PRESENTED BY GUILLERMO DEL TORO” on a poster would have had me hook, line and sinker, no questions asked. Such was the draw that led me to one of the best horror movies of this crazy new Willennium, The Orphanage. Unfortunately, it was also the draw that duped me into Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, one of the stupidest horror movies of this funky fresh Willennium. As a result, name-dropping Guillermo has gone from a bonafide guarantee to a tried and true crapshoot, so it wasn’t doing much to sell me on Mama.
For that matter, there wasn’t much of anything that was selling me on Mama. Judging by the trailer, it was just another haunted house movie from the god-awful month of January. And unless I was missing something, the only real hook was finding out who or what was “Mama” That and why Jessica Chastain had suddenly turned goth on us.
If it weren’t for a friend’s recommendation, the mystery would have remained. And while we usually tend to argue about these things, it’s sure is glorious to find some common ground with horror.
So the downside of the situation is that in many ways this is just another haunted house movie. The upside of the situation is that it’s learned from those before it.
The biggest difference between this and say, Paranormal Activity, is that I never wanted to scream at the characters. “Dude, go to bed. Quit taunting the demon already.” That kind of stuff. The weird thing about is that these are all stock characters that keep walking into stock situations. They’re the psychiatrist who diagnoses “Mama” as a split-personality, they’re the folks who enter a room just when someone warns them not to. Time and again this continues to happen, but every time these fools are about to confirm your expectations, something magical happens: they don’t.
I have absolutely no idea why this is, but it’s so freaking rare to find characters in a horror movie that value self-preservation over sheer curiosity. I wasn’t certainly wasn’t expecting to find those diamonds in the rough here, but lo and behold. I can’t even begin to express what a relief it is to think to myself “Don’t go in there!” and then watch a character not go in there. Seriously, think about that for a second. How many horror movies have you seen where that happens? Only one or two are coming to mind and I sincerely wish that wasn’t the case.
I still can’t help but wonder why they always wait ’til the sun goes down to go exploring, but whatever, I’ll forgive it. It’s a horror movie, darkness happens. But what can I say other than it’s just plain nice to not have to worry about these characters for once. I’ve seen them before, we’ve all seen them before, and after years of getting offed because of their own stupid selves, common sense has started sinking in. Way to go, people.
The other noteworthy trait about this crew is that aside from acting like actual people, they relate to each other like actual people. Despite the large role that the uncle plays in getting the ball rolling here, it isn’t that long before he winds up in a coma. Dude should have known not to front with “Mama.” So with Jaime Lannister out of the picture, it’s up to his girlfriend to grit her teeth and shoulder the responsibility of raising these two wildings. She doesn’t like it, they don’t like it, and both parties make this quite clear from the get-go. But the more time they spend together and the more they warm up, the more they start to grow under the watch of that thing.
It’s no Kramer vs. Kramer, but this strained relationship among the three ladies (and let’s not forget “Mama”) is unusually convincing for a movie like this. Again, it all adds up to make these characters feel human enough so that at the end of the day, you just might care about what happens to them.
It’s not exactly breathing new life into a tired and familiar premise, but Mama works, much more than I thought it would. And like any good horror movie should, it works because of what it doesn’t show. It doesn’t show idiots and it doesn’t show what you think it will. It winds up shooting itself in the foot by showing its monster front and center, but that’s a small price to pay for doing so much else right.
Still, if it’s cheap scares that you’re after, Mama might disappoint. Even though it has them and even though I was spooked, the fact remains that I’m a tried-and-true wuss with these things. The horror’s mainly driven by atmosphere and tension, and if that sounds good to you, the finished product should be pretty darn eerie. Then again, cheap scares and pissed pants only do so much for me these days. So if you’re looking for something to actually listen to your pleas, Mama is here to make everything better.