Mama is the kind of film that could go either way. On the one hand, it is a PG-13 horror film released in January, the dumping ground for most films released wide at that time. On the other hand, it has the spirit of an old-school horror film, with Guillermo Del Toro’s name attached as a producer. Fortunately, Mama is better than the last horror film produced by Del Toro, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but Mama still does not succeed overall. While it tries to work as a solid B-movie, there are a number of issues, mainly in the film’s third act, that keep it from becoming more than a decent, one-time watch.
Mama begins with reports of a father murdering his wife and business partners and then taking his two young daughters to an isolated place in the woods. They arrive at an abandoned cabin, where the father seems to be ready to end it for all of them, before being taken away by an unknown force. Five years later, the girls are found by a rescue party hired by the brother of the girls’ father. This brother is Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldou), who is soon given custody of the girls, along with his punk rock girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as long as the four of them live in a house owned by the psychiatric clinic that wants to keep an eye on the girls. These girls, Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse), have essentially reverted to very primal instincts, during the time they spent alone in the woods, but after coming back to civilization, it becomes quite clear that they were not completely alone, as some sort of force seems to also be living in the house with all of them.
For a film that seems to have a very basic premise, a lot of time is spent on delivering plot details. It is not overly complicated, but it did feel overly convoluted. It is not much of a surprise that the film is based off a short, but like many short films turned into full-length features, a lot needs to be done to fill the time and unfortunately it becomes a mix of elements that I was really enjoying and areas where I feel it tried a bit too hard. Certain characters make goofy decisions for the sake of getting more mileage out of the story and then the third act leads to a number of problems that I can’t spoil.
With this aside, there is a good amount of entertainment value in the way the film presents both a dramatic story about two girls that have gone through some pretty crazy events and a horror story with a lot of boo moments. Were this film not to have a supernatural element, a solid film could be made about just these little girls coming back to society. With the “mama” character, the film has a good number of effective moments, regardless of how creepy the actual image of this thing is.
I found the two girls to be very effective. They weren’t playing their parts in a creepy sort of way, beyond randomly popping up at some points, and they also were not playing their parts with any sort of precociousness. Victoria is the older of the two and had more of a chance to develop before the events happened, so it was neat to see here come back to acting like a normal little girl. Then there is Lilly, who still enjoys walking on all fours and rejecting the idea of being a normal girl. These are interesting things to see play out.
As for the adult actors, Chastain in unsurprisingly good in her role. I like how she plays a character that was never into the idea of taking care of kids and very slowly comes around to playing that role, once Lucas is less prevalent in the film. At the same time, Coster-Waldou is fine in a role that essentially has him looking around in the dark, trying to be nice, but ultimately just providing filler information for the film, while more interesting things happen elsewhere.
The look of the film is nice. Writer/director Andy Muschietti goes for a very dark color palette that reflects the mood of the film. He also makes use of a lot of steadicam shots that do well to build the tension in various scenes (which reflects his original short film). I will say that this is very much a film that relies on sharp music cues and jump scares, but it is quite focused in its assembly. The actual look of mama will go either way with the viewer, but I enjoyed certain extended scenes that focused on this aspect of the film, while others just felt kind of silly. That said, the best horror tricks are the easy ones, with characters seemingly in one place or doing one kind of action, only for the camera to admit to playing a trick on the viewer.
It is the ending of Mama, and I mean the last 20 minutes or so, that really keep me from truly appreciating the film more. I was not a fan of how the film wrapped up, even though it was pretty decent up until that point. Even the design of the finale is effective to an extent, as the film’s style is strong enough for me to appreciate the success that Muschietti has found as a director who will go on to better things. Still, Mama is not terrible, just not a film I plan to have much reflection on in the future.
The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer for Mama is great. The film’s video quality on Blu-ray seems to reflect exactly what it was going for. While very dark, the textures and black levels never dip in quality. There is a warmth to the film that seems to be so chilly throughout and that is reflected in the picture quality on the disc. I may not be a great fan of the CG present in the film, though there are a lot of practical effects here, but the Blu-ray quality certainly did not degrade this visual element or make it look less like what was intended. It is a very good transfer through and through.
Similarly, the audio quality of this Blu-ray is quite good. While the score of the film fits the template of standard horror movie-type music, it sounds great and shook up my surround system when the time was right. The Blu-ray is fitted with a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio surround track and it does the job for this film. Aside from the score, everything else is reflected well on this track, including the dialogue and various sound effects coming from the various spooky locations that we visit. There are even a number of whispered conversations with the girls and possibly mama that come out well thanks to this very solid audio track.
There is a nice set of extras on this disc and it was actually somewhat of a relief that the film does not have an “unrated version”, meaning that this was the film that everyone wanted to make and release.
Blu-ray Exclusive – Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama. A brief look at how some of the visual components of the mama character were brought to life.
Feature Commentary with Director/Co-writer Andy Muschietti and Producer/Co-writer Barbara Muschietti. The brother-sister team does their best to go over the production of the film. It is a decent listen for fans of the film.
Deleted Scenes – A handful of scenes that were cut for time, basically. Commentary is optional.
The Birth of Mama – A brief, standard EPK video, which has everyone involved talking about their involvement on the film.
Original Short with Introduction by Guillermo Del Toro – The best extra of the bunch, as it is an HD version of the actual short film, which is quite effective as a standalone piece of entertainment. Commentary is optional here as well.
I wish I had originally seen this film in a theater, with an audience. My reaction to the film may have been more positive, were that to be my first experience with Mama. Instead, the film just kind of plays out and did enough to keep me engaged, but not a whole lot to really have me invested on a great level. The actors are fine, the style is nice, but the scares are fairly lackluster and the story left me with no real further thought. At least the Blu-ray is very good, with its decent collection of extras and solid audio/video presentation. If you are looking for a very decent, recent horror film, Mama is a fine rental at most, but not much more.