Over the years of being a horror blogger, I've gotten pretty good at pre-judging horror movies, and coming up with an opinion on them based on their trailers, and the general vibe I get from them. Now of course, it's always unfair to judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its trailer, and there are many times where my pre-judgements about any given movie are totally off base. But I do admit that I always go into any movie that I know I'm going to review with a general pre-review already fleshed out in my head, and then I sort of alter the review in my head as I'm watching the movie. It's kind of a neurotic thing I do, which admittedly has hurt my enjoyment of just sitting back and watching a movie, but hey, that's the life of a horror blogger ... it's all about the review. I chose this life, and I'm stickin' to it!
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that at least 80% of the time, the pre-review I've written in my head before even seeing a horror movie is pretty damn similar to the review I end up writing, when I sit down to actually flesh out my review of that movie. When you've been watching horror movies as long as I have, it's really not all that hard to pick up a vibe from a trailer, and determine whether or not you're gonna dig the movie. It's not a fool proof system, and I always love when my pre-judgements are totally wrong, but more often than not, they're right on point. And no, these pre-judgements are never clouded by the reviews of others, which I generally avoid at all costs, before I see a movie for myself. I'd encourage all movie reviewers to do the same, to ensure that your opinions are 100% YOUR opinions.
So then, now that you've gotten a little insight into my neurotic methods of reviewing movies, let's talk Mama. The pre-review I went into Mama with, already in my head? I felt like it was going to be a generic but serviceably decent horror flick, at best. I expected it'd be good enough, and get the job done, but that it would ultimately be quite unimpressive, and I'd leave the theater not really caring about what I just saw. That's just the hunch I got.
And that hunch, in this case, was pretty much 100% on point.
Mama began its life back in 2008 as a three minute short film, directed by Andres Muschietti. Short and to the point, the film was about two young girls who are nervously anticipating the arrival of who they refer to as "Mama", who turns out to be a really creepy ghost chick that thrusts herself toward the camera, forcing us all to leave skidmarks in our undies. It's a pretty creepy short, so check it out if ya haven't yet.
Story goes that Guillermo Del Toro was so impressed with the three minutes of terror that he immediately decided to help Muschietti turn it into a feature length film, which he would serve as a producer of. Together, they developed the story and turned the three minutes into 100 minutes, and Mama was born.
Expanding heavily on the general idea of the short, Mama is about two young girls who are forced to fend for themselves in the woods, after their father kills their mother, and is then killed himself by the titular 'Mama'. There they sit in the woods, for five years, undiscovered, and raised by Mama. Eventually, they are found, and the feral girls are taken in by their artist uncle and his rockstar girlfriend (Chastain), who are determined to give them a normal life, and help them shed their animalistic ways. Only problem with that? Mama has traveled with them, and she's none too happy that her babies have been taken away from her. She will stop at nothing to get them back.
Cool idea? Totally. Original? Yep. But where Mama falls apart is in the execution. If you watched the original short film that I just linked to above, you'll see that the short is completely centered around one super creepy moment, where a lanky uber scary ghost chick with flowing black hair runs toward the camera. That's all good and well, for a film that is three minutes long, and is really only intended to give viewers a quick jump scare, without bothering to tell any sort of real story. Like those videos your mean friends used to send you, where they'd tell you to crank up the volume on your computer, and hit the play button. Naive little you, who was not yet familiar with such trickery, would oblige. The video would be 30 seconds long, and the first 25 seconds would be totally peaceful and serene. And them WHAM!, you'd get hit in the face with a creepy image and a loud noise, which would make you jump out of your seat, with your mean friend giggling behind you. A quick jump scare, that's what the Mama short film was all about.
So then. How do expand a jump scare into 100 minutes of run time? Well, you can either A) focus more on story, since you've now got a whole lot of time to do that. Or B) you can just expand that one jump scare into twenty jump scares, and make a movie that exists only to serve the jump scares, and to assault the audience with those jump scares as much as possible, creating a boring highlight reel of jump scare imagery that will make teen girls seek comfort in their boyfriends, and make horror fans roll their eyes every time they hear the sounds of teen girls screaming at stupid generic CGI bullshit. If you guessed that Mama takes the route outlined in option B, you'd be correct. Give yourself a prize.
A highlight reel of creepy jump scare moments ... that's precisely what Mama is, above all else. The teen girls were screaming. And I was rolling my eyes. Is there some creepy imagery in there? Sure, there is. I'm not going to deny that. But the problem with jump scares is that, though they may make you jump out of your seat, they leave no lasting impact on you. Jump scares don't come home with you. Jump scares don't make you scared to sleep at night, or scared to walk into your pitch black home, after seeing a movie. They give you a quick jolt of fear, that lasts no more than a split second, and then poof, they're gone. You forget all about them. Jump scares do not a scary movie make, which is something Muschietti apparently hasn't realized yet. But hey, can ya blame him? Guillermo Del Toro fell in love with him based on a jump scare he effectively pulled off, so what choice did he really have but to try and do the same thing, on a much bigger scale? It's Del Toro who I'd expect better from, even if he only served as producer.
I remember when I saw Sinister last year, I was actually still scared by the movie when I returned home after seeing it, and had trouble sleeping that night. The fact that I heard a creepy noise in the basement while lying in bed didn't hurt, but the point is that the scariness of the movie actually came home with me. To me, that's the mark of a truly scary movie. And for a truly scary movie to be truly scary, story and genuine suspense need to take precedence over the scares. It seems all Muschietti was concerned with was scaring the audience. And again, jump scares do not a scary movie make.
But hey, at least Jessica Chastain is nice to look at...
Now the other big problem I had with the movie is that the character of Mama is pretty much entirely comprised of CGI, with all her 'creepy' movements driven by strokes on a keyboard. Now of course I'm a big anti-CGI kinda guy, but what's most upsetting about the use of it in this case is that it really wasn't even necessary. Or at least, it wasn't necessary to use it to the extent it was used. Ya see, they hired Javier Botet to play Mama. Botet is the lanky and totally terrifying looking dude that portrayed the Medeiros girl in the REC movies, one of the creepier creatures in recent horror memory. The bone chilling ending of REC, which I will never forget? That was almost entirely Botet. He really looks like that. And that's what made that moment at the end so goddamn scary. You could tell the 'creature' was actually there on set, and not added in post-production. Aint nothing scary about a computer. Except when someone drops you a link to Lemon Party, of course. I fall for it every damn time.
So what the hell is the point of hiring Botet to play your creepy creature, and then proceeding to go CGI crazy on him, to the point that I can pretty well guarantee that most people seeing the movie won't even appreciate the fact that Botet really looks like that, and will instead just think the entire creature was created in post-production?! Why is it only us fans that seem to realize that CGI IS RUINING HORROR FILMS. IT'S NOT SCARY. AND IT NEEDS TO STOP.
But hey, at least Jessica Chastain is nice to look at...
Don't even get me started on the ending of the film, which is so monumentally stupid that it made me lose all sight of anything that I was even remotely enjoying about the movie. Though the final 10 or so minutes does admittedly have some beauty to it, at least from an artistic standpoint, the finale couldn't possibly come off as any more lame than it does, as Muschietti desperately tries to extract emotion out of what is an embarrassing attempt to add some depth and heart to the story. Believe me, I love genuine emotion being infused into a horror film, but man, capping off a generic montage of jump scares with a shoe horned in message about letting go and moving on just did not work for this movie, at all. Pretty sure even those teenage girls who were screaming earlier in the movie were rolling their eyes by the time the film reached its climax. Totally awkward.
Don't be fooled by Del Toro's name being attached to this one. Mama is more akin to one of those generic American remakes of a Japanese horror film that the horror market was flooded with back in the early 2000's, much more than it is anything Del Toro himself has created. Creepy girl who walks weird, and has flowing back hair that obscures her face ... oooh, so scary!
My advice? If it's a Del Toro style film that you're looking for, and you're in the mood for a ghost story that's got a lot more going for it than just being a ghost story (as Mama attempts to...), keep your money in your pocket and check out The Orphanage instead, which Del Toro produced back in 2007. Now there's a damn fine film, packed with genuine scares, genuine emotions and a really solid story. Cannot recommend that movie enough.
But hey, at least Jessica Chastain is nice to look at. Right?