Mama (2013)

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…

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Wednesday's Child
Wednesday's Child (@msinitforthekills)
8 years ago

“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!”

mickster (@mickster)
8 years ago

Unkle Lancifer is awesome! That is all!

JennyD13 (@jennyd13)
8 years ago

I gotta say, I quite liked Mama. I do see what you’re saying though.

disco.charlie (@disco-charlie)
8 years ago

Great review, and I completely agree with so many of your points.

I remember being so excited to see “Mama” from the creepy commercials and the whispering voices… then I actually saw it.

With due respect to all who disagree (you like what you want to, I think it’s cool), I really hated this movie.

I am always willing to suspend disbelief and let myself get lost in even the silliest of movies, but this one lost me from the first 5 minutes.

It’s so ridiculous and unintentionally funny throughout. The dialogue is cringe-worthy. Two terrific actors, Jessica Chastain and The Kingslayer, wasted in one-dimensional roles. The scene where Jessica’s friend says “You’re in a rock band!” is so weirdly hilarious that someone should sample it and put it to music.

Mama herself is not scary at all. She looks like a thrown-away early-draft sketch of Kayako in “The Grudge”, and the scene where her hair floats over the floor to kill the very, very one-note and useless Aunt character is really lame. It would’ve been so much scarier to have Mama be portrayed by a real actor, and not all this fake-looking CGI that took me right out of the movie.

On the positive, the 2 child actors were some of the best I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the movie had potential, but the execution is just so poor. It did well at the box office, so a sequel is on the way I’m sure.

I also felt this way about “Sinister” — I heard all the raves, but when I saw it, I was so let down. Maybe it’s me. I’ll take “The Conjuring” and “Insidious 1 & 2” any day over this.

JennyD13 (@jennyd13)
8 years ago

If it makes you feel any better Disco.charlie, there was a real dude playing Mama under all that CGI!

I agree, it was much more creepy with out all digital crap.

I loved The Conjuring, Insidious 1& 2, but I also loved Sinister. Although what I loved most about it was the absolutely jarring soundtrack. It kept me on edge long after the movie ended.

wmcampbell13 (@wmcampbell13)
8 years ago

I was onboard for this one as soon as I heard it was greenlit. The short film scared the hell out of me. I agree it could have been so much more, but I really loved the little girls. It is a heart-breaking moment when you realize the younger sister can’t let go, and the tug-of-war scene is one of the most effective scenes in the film. The ending is more adequate than awesome, but I did like the butterfly… I’m not stoked about this becoming a franchise, I just thought it was a nice way to end the story. I don’t see the need for a sequel.

kathy13 (@kathy13)
8 years ago

I was also disappointed in Mama, a film that I was initially well excited about. I didn’t dislike Annabelle so much, but I think that might just be because of my crush on Jessica Chastain. However, I really didn’t like the ending. The whole turn into butterflies thing was really cheesy, and I thought it made Mama ultimately much less frightening, which up until then had been the movie’s strong point. Also, I couldn’t help thinking-how are they going to explain this to a social worker? “Um, yeah, we only have one kid now, because the other one turned into a butterfly?”-yeah, that’ll work.

They're coming to get you Barbara
They're coming to get you Barbara (@theyre-coming-to-get-you-barbara)
8 years ago

The trailer for Mama really disturbed me. I actually felt like I needed to watch this movie so I could stop being afraid of it. Then I watched it and learned that I had nothing to fear. That being said, I mostly enjoyed it, there were a lot of fun visuals perpetrated by Mama and the kids.

This film came out on DVD on the same week as Mother’s Day and I thought that was a really sick joke until I watched it. It turns out that Mama isn’t a bad Mother’s Day flick at all, she spends the whole film trying to care and protect the two girls (okay, she wasn’t exactly mother of the year, but for being a crazed supernatural entity I thought she did a pretty good job.) And Jessica Chastain does a great job of demonstrating how to be a really terrible mother.