I was actually lucky enough to stumble upon the original Mama online. It's a short film by Andres Muschietti, who also directed this feature length version, that came out in 2008. It was a simple Spanish film that was only three minutes long but in those three minutes he created an atmosphere of tension, dread and horror as two little girls try to run from their Mama just as we discover in the final shot that Mama is not their mother but a horrific and twisted ghost. What I liked the most about this version is that those three minutes are in it shot-for-shot but the remaining 97 minutes aren't nearly as good.
Guillermo Del Toro is a writer/director/producer that has become an icon in the geeked-out, fanboy world and make no mistake that he has created some incredible films. He directed Pan's Labrynth, the Hellboy films, Blade 2 and The Devil's Backbone. His production credits however have extrodinary highs such as The Orphange and extrodinary lows such as Are You Afraid of the Dark. But he likes to think that he has a nose for talent and fleshing out stories. Half the time that seems to be true. In the case of Mama, I'm not sure if he helped or hurt.
The film has a very powerful opening scene that is beautifully shot and is tragic and ominous. The remaining first act as well as the second are creepy, chilling and disturbing. But the final act the film rides off the rails and becomes something different altogether. It transforms from a terrifying horror film into a gothic drama. It's not a bad final act but the tone doesn't match the rest and your average movie-goer will be very disapointed with the conclusion.
The movie stars Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) and I'm thinking she regrets that. A few years ago, Eddie Murphy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his work in Dreamgirls. Just a week or two before the awards, his film Norbit came out and it was so bad that, according to legend, it blew his shot at a win. Is Mama as bad as Norbit? Hell no! Norbit was one of the worst movies of the decade. Mama isn't even a bad movie but it's far from great and her performance in particular is not even quality by horror movie standards and I guess we'll see if Oscar voters will sentence her to a similar Eddie Murphy fate.
What Mama falls victim to is the classic rule that "less is more." Any film student student who barely paid attention in class knows that the reason why Jaws was so effective was because you barely see the shark. In Mama, the ghastly Mama is shrouded in shadow and creepy sound FX until that final act when it becomes a CGI fest that shows so much of her that she becomes comical and no longer creepy. Where does that leave you on a decision to see it? I say see it in a packed movie theater so you can feed off the terror in the crowd when the movie is good but around 65 minutes into it, sneak out and into another theater for another film and make up an ending yourself. There's a really good chance you'll come up with something better than how it actually ends. Mama (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C+