The One Your Mama Warned You About
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Review written by Tom Bevis
Let’s talk about Mama. Let’s talk about Andres Muschietti and Jessica Chastain. Let’s talk about showing the face of the devil. Let’s talk about Guillermo del Torro and his line of work. Let’s talk about benching your best player, and let’s talk about who Andres Muschietti is.
Seriously. Who is Andres Muschietti?
From what I gather, he’s a guy who directed a pretty good three-minute film that got Guillermo del Torro’s attention. A move that, somehow, got him a contract and one and a half million dollars to make a feature film.
If that’s all it takes to make a movie, then I’ve got to get a handheld camera and start filming. Because, in all honesty, Mama is what happens when you give an amateur in his craft a ton of money, all the equipment he wants, and access to a slew of celebrity talent. Mama is a lesson in what not to do on your first feature film.
If anyone wanted Mama to work, it was me. If I had to pick a favorite genre, it would be horror, hands down. I love Guilermo del Torro. I love movies from first-time filmmakers. And I quite liked the short film Mama is based on. But, man, this movie is an absolute wreck. I’m deeply saddened to say that this film isn’t the dramatic horror picture driven by two young actresses the trailers make it out to be. Instead, it’s a cheap, gimmicky tour de force of horror movie mistakes driven by repetition of misplaced subplots.
Mama is the simple story of two young girls who disappeared in the wilderness after their mother is murdered. Years later, the girls are found thanks to the effort of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The two girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Neilesse) are adopted by Lucas and his reluctant girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), but it soon becomes clear that the girls brought something back with them, something dark, something creepy with long, bony arms, something that twitches and shrieks and may or may not be the ghost of their mother.
Let me say that this film isn’t what it looks like at first glance. And let me also say that you’ll know everything you need to know about this film at first glance. I’m not kidding. You’ll see the monster — the ghost — in its entirety within the first ten minutes. Ergo breaking the first rule of horror.
Some directors in horror understand that — more often than not — what isn’t shown is much scarier than what is. Tobe Hooper knew it when he directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. Guilermo del Torro knows it, and it reflects in nearly every movie he’s ever directed. But clearly, Andres Muschietti, director of Mama, doesn’t know it. And this is strange to me. Google Mama right now and you’ll find any number of articles explaining how del Torro has taken Muschietti under his wing during the filming of Mama.
Mama has flashes of a del Torro film. Mainly in pacing, tone, and design. But that’s about it. Del Torro would have never shown his hand right off the bat. And the further the film goes along, the more and more it seems Muschietti and del Torro suffered a lovers’ quarrel during the making of the film. This is especially apparent when a subplot involving the identity if the ghost is slapped into the movie in the least-elegant fashion possible. And I’d be a damned liar if I didn’t say that the audience was laughing — I mean, in stitched — during this little segue.
As a matter of fact, the audience was rolling in their seats any time the ghost was shown.
This is a serious backfire. Muschietti tried to force scares out of his audience by showing his monster early and showing it often, but the attempt was so shallow and the design of his creature so misguided that the film became an unintentional comedy.
And the cast just couldn’t keep up with this rather slapstick turn of events. The two girls, Charpentier and Neilesse, are fantastic. By far the best child actors I’ve seen in years. As for Chastain, I’m certain this movie is just a paycheck to her. She delivers her lines as if she were in some half-baked high school play. The real surprise is that the film’s most powerful actor, Coster-Waldau, spends more than half the movie off screen. This also puzzles me. Why stable your best horse, Muschietti?
In the end, I don’t regret seeing this movie. But still, the only resting thought at the end of it all is the hope that the studio will give del Torro a shot at the final cut. Maybe in two or three years we’ll see a producer’s cut of the film. That, I’m certain, would look much better.