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Movie Review: MAMA

January 21, 2013

I’m not sure how I feel about Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker, but I respect the fact he uses his success and clout to help other filmmakers get their feet in the door. In 2007, he got behind THE ORPHANAGE, a Spanish ghost story not entirely unlike his own DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

This time around, it’s MAMA, based on a short film of the same name, a film which in its expansion to feature length has culled from quite a few more sources than del Toro’s body of work — the influence of THE RING and DARK WATER are readily apparent, with dashes of THE EXORCIST, POLTERGEIST, BLAIR WITCH, and even a few moments lifted from THE GRAVEDANCERS. Though MAMA, like ORPHANAGE, was made by Spanish filmmakers, unlike the earlier film it is in English.

The film starts out promisingly — a stockbroker suffering sudden financial ruin has a psychotic breakdown, murders his estranged wife and kidnaps his two young daughters. One of them is a kindergartener, the other only a year or two old. He winds up driving his car off the road in the woods, and trudging deeper in they discover a cabin by a frozen lake. He’s about to commit a murder-suicide before something in the shadows rips him away, leaving the two girls on their own. That night, sitting in the small pool of light cast by a tiny fire in the fireplace, a single cherry rolls to them — the thing in the darkness has decided to look after them.

It’s a creepy set-up, delightfully Lovecraftian. The older girl needs glasses, but they were damaged in the car crash, so she can’t really see what it is that’s adopted them. The toddler is exposed to the full brunt of the horror, but she’s too young to have her sense of sanity shattered (and will, as a result, spend her childhood without one).

The film spends the next hour doing just about everything right. It sets up the adult protagonists to be tormented by Mama, and actually makes them likable, something so many films — especially horror films — fail to do. The brother of the man in the opening sequence — the little girls’ uncle — has bankrupted himself searching for the girls, and when he finds them and chooses to take them in, his girlfriend decides she cares about him enough that she will stay and help him raise them. It really takes the time to make the story about the characters and not just the scares.

When creepy things do happen — when it begins to become clear that the girls did not come out of the woods alone, and their guardian is jealously possessive — they’re suspenseful, sometimes masterfully so, with things happening uninflected within the frame. You, the viewer, are left to infer that Something Is Wrong from the context rather than the movie getting in your face with crazy camera work and orchestra stings.

Then, just past the midpoint, the movie begins to unravel. The plot begins to make less and less sense, the character motivations and behaviors become less coherent, and the sure-handed confidence of the creeping terror gives way to jump scares, shrieking violins, and showing a great deal of the entity Mama rather than implying her.* The tone starts to vary wildly as well — sometimes creepy, sometimes silly, sometimes almost becoming an action movie. The final confrontation with Mama attempts to go for some emotional power, but the story has gotten so muddled and confused by this point it’s hard to know what I’m supposed to feel.

If you like horror films, this is worth it for some of the really solid scares, and characters you actually care about; but don’t let the first hour get your hopes up too high. It doesn’t quite stick the landing.

*As a side note, the scene which I thought felt the most out of place in the movie was, I discovered afterward, essentially the original short film. In developing stories I find it’s often the case that the concept which made me want to tell the story in the first place — be it a scene, a character, a line of dialogue — no longer belongs in the story once it’s fleshed out. This is not unique to me — it’s what is meant by the writing adage “kill your darlings.” Given that this story appears to be based in part on the legend of La Llorona, it’s kind of ironic the filmmakers failed to do so.

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