Another curious entry into “January”-quality Hollywood horror fare, Mama dabbles in complex themes of motherhood but ultimately falls short on purpose and long on Visual Effects accompanied by auditory thrills. After a businessman named Jeffrey kills his wife and colleagues, he kidnaps his children and attempts to murder all of them by driving off a cliff. Instead, they live and retreat to a cabin in the woods where the spirit of Helvetia lives in a ghostly limbo. After disposing of Jeffrey, Helvetia (or Mama) takes care of the surviving children until they are discovered by Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas, and Lucas’ baby-fearing rocker girlfriend, Anabel. The plot turns to Anabel’s reluctant efforts to raise the now feral children, a process made more daunting by the persistent haunts of a volatile spirit that has engendered the trust of the girls.
Jessica Chastain, more layered here than in her lauded box office running mate, Zero Dark Thirty (and with more to chew on), plays a “modern” woman struggling to deny her biological needs of motherdom in an effort to keep up her dreams of rock stardom. Mama trips out of its first act by forcing Anabel to run two tracks: her apparent undeterred love for Lucas – something hardly earned – and her needs as an individual thinker. This confused dichotomy, combined with an extended opening that follows a rather convenient turn of events alluding to Wall Street corruption, makes the narrative tilt to Anabel difficult to maintain. Thus, the film relies on standard, if also particularly confusing, shock value in its mid-section.
The titular Mama, an exercise in the extent to which strangeness can be portrayed wholly by computer-generated visual design, moves along as incoherent and contradictory a path as Anabel. One particular fantasy sequence is handled with exceptional creativity but vaguely explains that Mama jumped off a cliff with her baby. It seems Mama, like Anabel, was a modern woman cast away by the puritanical values of her time. She would rather live with her child in spirit than remain repressed on Earth. This is all a conjecture as it makes for a buttoned-up parallel to Anabel and, to a lesser extent, Jeffrey. In her presently mangled, ghostly state, Mama cowers in the corners of Anabel’s home, lurking for wince-worthy suspense and retreating at the sight of someone who might apparently threaten her. That is until the stock characters, written in just to die, enter her tentacles. They, for some apparent reason, do not scare her enough for her to be spooked into the walls.
Of all factory-line genre films, contemporary horror seems to be aiming at the lowest possible entertainment by leaving even generic threads of intrigue stranded if a scare set piece will suffice. It’s a wonder then that the makers of Mama even bothered to tease what could have been a compelling cross-bread of symbolic gender imbalance and biological necessity. It would seem that the ending sequence follows through on the sense that Anabel gives in to her natural need to protect a child even at the risk of sacrificing herself. More interesting, Helvetia is given a similarly confused backstory wherein she must choose between the cultural commitment of a life lived for the church and keeping her off-spring. However, these ties only dance on the periphery of Mama without building to a satisfying connection.
As probably should be expected, Mama excels at what it prioritizes, which falls on the side of surprise shrieks and cheap scares. For what it’s worth, and that’s about half the price of admission, there’s a handful of energized thrills and hair-raising moments, mostly involving Mama shooting like a laser beam from one side of a room to another. While the effect likely was intended to feel like a trek through a haunted house, where we know the surprises are coming and the best we can do is brace for them, the result feels more like a tedious waiting game that pays off only in short bursts. To compact the problem, Mama unabashedly borrows from past forays in the genre (a habit that has crippled the credibility of these types) such as the Exorcist-patented crab walk and the Poltergeist-style supernatural creep show fit with possessed children and deranged spirits. Considering the lofty themes that are fearfully abandoned, one gets the sense that Mama is the work of extremely talented people hesitant to commit to potentially polarizing creativity.
Contrary to the promise of Mama’s taut trailer, like so many of these films built to thrill, any notion of complexity winds up feeling like window dressing to a story intent only to surprise. Mama – the character – doesn’t scare so much as annoy, seeing as she’s a haunting villain who can kill at will when convenient but run and hide when necessary. I can’t think of another film where the evil spirit seems as scared to be there as those it haunts. Just one of the major missteps in a promising miscalculation. [C-]