I found Mama to be an incredibly frustrating horror experience. It's a film that I wanted to like, due to its unique supernatural story and some effective shocks, but also a film that loses its way technically and seems to stumble more often than not in its storytelling. It's easy to see that this is a small idea - originally a three minute short horror film - that has been expanded, but it's worth noting that I was surprised to find out the sequence that had the biggest impact on me was not the sequence that inspired the feature length film.
The film opens rather terrifically, following a criminal father (played by Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who kidnaps his two young daughters after a heist and takes them to an abandoned cabin in the woods. Trouble follows, and the girls end up abandoned themselves, left to survive on their own until they are found five years later, and placed in the custody of their uncle (also played by Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain).
As you can guess, the survival of two preteen girls in the wild doesn't happen by chance, and does have some side effects. The girls are protected by an unseen force they know as "Mama," and it becomes quickly evident that this supernatural force has followed them to their new home. Chastain becomes the focal point of the film as she struggles to keep the new family afloat while accepting that she has to leave behind her passion for being a tattooed garage band rock star. Yes, I'm as surprised as you are to see Ms. Chastain put into that role, but the actress makes it work effortlessly.
As I was saying earlier, the opening of the film was gripping and unsettling and even a little bit surprising, and the setting sequence in the cabin had me prepared to enjoy where Mama was heading. Unfortunately, the film becomes rather difficult once the girls move to their new home, partially because the story becomes extremely predictable and primarily because the film misses a lot of marks while trying to creep out the audience.
The most difficult thing for me was the representation of Mama as a character. Initial scenes were mysterious and creepy, but as we see more of Mama she becomes less intimidating. The special effects used to create the character - a mixture of one frail actor, a lot of prosthetics and a ton of CGI - were laughably bad at times, particularly during a final showdown that seems to be leftover from some kind of fairy tale. This goofy looking creature - that reminded me of a department store Halloween decoration on a stick - combined with repetitive and predictable scares to overwhelm a lot of the good things Mama had going on.
There's a lot I like about Mama - the actors, some fantastic camerawork, an eerie/ugly green-orange-brown color palette that oozes through the whole movie - and some may be more forgiving of certain flaws than I was. The story itself is a bit forgettable - I saw it last week and I had to look up the ending to make sure I remembered it correctly today - and the ghastly title character is unimpressive, and that was enough to take me out of the picture all together. I suppose it's an OK movie for a horror night with a crowd of friends, but there's not a lot under the surface to make me want more of what Mama's offering.
Being a film that's merely four months removed from its theatrical release, there's little reason to complain about Universal's presentation of Mama. The blu-ray picture is very clear - perhaps drawing out the flaws in the special effects more - and the surround sound mix sounded great on my standard home system.
The disc has a few extras, most notably the 2008 short film by director Muschetti that caught the eye of producer Guillermo Del Toro. I wish I had watched the short before the film, but it was still effective in setting mood and creating a horror image that seems ripe for an expanded story. Unfortunately, I don't think this expanded story did it justice. The short is introduced by Del Toro, who shows up all over the disk in interviews, and should give you an idea of what to expect from the film. This feature is also available on YouTube, so feel free to check it out if you're still wondering about the movie.
Also on the disc are a collection of six deleted scenes - mostly short filler segments about Chastain's character adapting to the kids and the kids doing creepy things in the name of Mama - each of which have a commentary by Muschetti and his co-writer/sister. The blu-ray offers two other featurettes, one on on the inspiration for the film and one on the special effects. The latter is exclusive to the blu-ray and shows a) that a lot of interesting work was put into creating Mama and b) that I still think she looks goofy and isn't frightening. The disc also offers commentary on the film, the short, and the deleted scenes by both Muschetti siblings, and their passion for this project does ring through. It's hard to be the guy who doesn't like the movie when the filmmakers sound so passionate about their work, and they make me want to give Mama another chance despite what my head is telling me about the movie.
The disc also has a selection of trailers for other Universal products, starting the disc with ads for upcoming releases Dead in Tombstone (a pulpy DTV western starring Danny Trejo, Anthony Michael Hall, and Dina Meyer that has my attention), Side Effects (an odd inclusion here, but I always accept Soderbergh), and the TV series Grimm. From the menu you can select to view several trailers for other spooky Universal releases of the last decade - from The Unborn to White Noise to The Last House on the Left - that could be compared to Mama in genre and quality.
Mama is being released on Blu-Ray Combo pack (with a DVD and an Ultraviolet copy) this Tuesday, May 7th, and will also be available in a stand alone DVD package. Fans of the movie should be very pleased with the presentation, and casual horror fans looking for some good jumps might get something out of it. I wasn't wild about the film, but it has its positives. Check out the trailer below and make up your own mind this Tuesday!