Making a bad horror movie is like a rite of passage for any actor who’s truly made it in the fame game. Jennifer Lawrence has “The House at the End of the Street.” Hilary Swank has “The Reaping.” Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper have “Case 39.” You catch my drift. So, please join me in saying: Welcome to Hollywood, Jessica Chastain!
In “Mama,” current golden girl Chastain plays Annabel, a goth rocker with tattoos running up and down her arms and a haircut stolen from Joan Jett. When we first meet Annabel, she’s nervously waiting for the results of a home pregnancy test. When the results come back negative, she gleefully announces the news to her boyfriend Lucas (played by “Game of Thrones’” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Right then the filmmakers’ all-too-obvious message is loud and clear: this woman is not the maternal type. When Lucas’ nieces are found still alive after being abandoned by their father who went insane five years prior, the couple find themselves inheriting the two feral children – as well as a menacing spirit known only as “Mama.”
With his last attempt at horror, “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark,” being a complete failure, I should have known that Guillermo del Toro’s name attached to something isn’t automatically indicative of good quality. Here’s the thing: it’s really easy to make a bad movie…and it’s even easier to make a bad horror movie. But "Mama" had something that made me think that maybe, just maybe, this could be a great film: a refreshingly unique plot. There are many different layers to this story, and early on it seemed like those layers would be explored, making for more than just another supernatural chiller. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. What started out as original quickly fell into the cliché – and not just the cliché – into the loud-noise jump scares and the “let’s try and right the wrong!” type of horror fodder; the very kind of movie that relies too heavily on its contrived fable aspect and turns potentially non-brain-dead characters into the kind of horror trope that we so love to hate.
I could even live with all that, if “Mama” was at least scary. But the filmmakers do something that is inexcusable: they show us too much of Mama far too early on in the film. We get so many glimpses of her, in fact, that we become immune to her constant appearances. The true terror usually lies in the unknown, and we get an overload of the ripped-right-outta-a-Japanese-horror-flick CGI-explosion that is Mama around 30 minutes in. We may not see her in her entirety until another 15 minutes later, but it doesn’t mater; we’ve seen enough that we no longer care.
And all this is a shame, because the film is well shot and atmospheric (especially in certain beautifully-executed dream sequences midway through the film), and Chastain is fantastic in the lead role – and in a way, that almost makes everything worse. When you have a film with elements that can make it great, and you abandon those elements midway through – then, well, we’re just left with one starved, severely under-nurtured film.
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