Is it too late to write a review of MAMA? That movie is ancient. I missed it in the theater because who knows why, waited for it to appear on Netflix streaming, which it never did and then watched its price as a used DVD go from 15 dollars to 10 to 6 to 4. I finally had to buy the decrepit thing before it turned into a fossil! When I opened the DVD case the disc inside had a long grey beard growing on it! This movie is positively geriatric! Oh wait, IMDb says it was released less than a year ago. Hey don’t blame me, blame our disposable culture! This is BLOCKBUSTER’s fault even though they are dead! If it was up to me, you’d all be waiting three years for movies to come out on VHS and when they did, they’d cost a hundred clams to purchase and you’d rent them for 5 bucks a pop and if you were late returning them, you’d be fined up the wazoo! That is the natural order of things!
MAMA! Back to MAMA! Love that title! Why didn’t I like this movie so much? The premise is fantastic not to mention kindertrauma-riffic. Two poor, pitiful little girls are left in an abandoned cabin in the woods by their insane, gone postal father. Instead of starving and freezing to death, they are cared for by a motherly spook who, like Charo, goes by one name only “Mama” (okay, “cared for” might be a bit of a stretch.) We come to learn that Mama is a ghost that can physically engage in the world and move objects about with ease, so I’m wondering why the hell she didn’t pick up the cabin a bit, do some laundry and maybe comb the poor kid’s hair! Get it together Mama! You so lazy!
Five years later (really? It took five years for someone to look in the cabin next to the crashed car?), the now feral kids are discovered and taken in by their not insane uncle and his borderline sociopathic “rocker” girl friend Annabel (JESSICA CHASTAIN in a Cousin April wig). I say she’s borderline sociopathic because the card that informs us that Annabel is struggling with her maternal instincts is so overplayed that it appears as if she has never encountered a child before and has the patience of a spider monkey. To be fair, there are several later scenes of her connecting with the kids that are less ham-fisted and do really work. In fact, there are many elements in this movie that hint at a much better film just begging to happen. The kids are fantastic and the Mama entity, when not shoved down our throats, can be pretty spooky. Unfortunately every thing from a meddling Aunt to Mama’s backstory is painted in such broad strokes that it feels like a fairy tale performed on a Colorforms set. I have two major gripes…
Now, you know I love a “research” scene, they crack me up for being so cliché but I also love them as mid-film markers that declare that the mystery portion of our story is over and things are about to come to a head. MAMA’s “research” scene happens super early and it goes on and on and on. It’s like a big gelatinous mound of nothing in the center of the picture, a cinder block tied to a kite. We get the library, the wise oldster, a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK storage unit, maps upon maps, news clippings, psychic dreams with characters pointing towards things, street signs, BIG close ups of news clippings, more maps, more sign posts and it all just amounts to redundant filler. Really all the information could just be stuffed inside one of the psychic dreams but instead we have to laboriously follow a boring psychiatrist around when we should be at home with the kids. The kid’s story is interesting! It’s heartbreaking when the older sister is ready to move away from Mama and the younger one is not. The story is in the house between these characters but we keep getting pushed past the good stuff! Nothing to see here folks! Let’s catch up with our throwaway character’s attempts to learn what we all already know! (On the other hand, Dr. Boring’s cabin encounter with Mama might be the strongest scare in the film. )
Then there’s the whole look of Mama. Sometimes Mama looks cool and I dig her underwater hair-do and sometimes Mama looks terrible as in, “Did they model her facial expression from Beaker from the Muppet Show?” At this point, I don’t care if the effect is CGI or practical or stop-motion marionette, what matters is what’s on the screen and what’s on the screen is a problem for me. I think it was a fine idea to put Mama front and center at the climax. I’m not saying less is more and they showed too much and the audience needs to use its imagination because what’s in your head is scarier than anything they could show you and all that junk. It’s just that, as WHAM once said, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.” If you want to display Mama in all her glory make sure I’m in awe instead of catching myself wondering if DARKNESS FALLS is underrated. I don’t think MAMA is terrible, it’s just one of those movies that frustrates because you know it could have been way better. It’s not a good sign when your “Sorry I adopted you only to make you feel unwelcome in my home.” redemptive resolution was better handled in POLTERGEIST 3.
Like I said, I think it’s a great premise and I’ll even add that when MAMA is good, it feels like something from Disney’s early eighties dark fantasy period like WATCHER IN THE WOODS or SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (I wouldn’t be surprised to receive traumafessions on it in the future either). It’s also clear that the filmmakers at least tried to do something of substance even though they got sidetracked along the way. Ultimately for me though, it comes off kind of shrill and cloying and I think the material deserved a more subtle approach and more of a focus on the characters, particularly the relationship of the little sisters. MAMA is based on a short film and that makes perfect sense. If you edited out all of the subterfuge, stalling and brownnosing jump scares, you probably would have one very good short film. There are some priceless heirlooms in this dumpster (a tug of war with a blanket and an unseen Mama comes to mind) but boy do you have to dig! Now I’m sad. I wanted to like this more because it reminded me of my adopted cats. On the bright side, it was totally worth the four dollars for the snow scenes.
CORRECTIONS: The above review incorrectly claims that CHARO has only one name. That is not the case as is revealed in the clip below…