Normally, when we say that a movie “falls apart” or, if we’re feeling more grandly metaphorical, that it “goes off the rails,” we are implying that it was good and successful for some amount of time. It can be truthfully said that Andrés Muschietti’s Mama becomes extraordinarily terrible in the end but it wouldn’t be right to say that it falls apart. To do that, it would have had to be together at some point to begin with.
In the film’s prologue, we see two young sisters taken from their mother by their estranged father after he has done some very bad things indeed. They find a cabin, which is in the woods, which is where cabins are found. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll simply say that one thing leads to another and the girls are left alone. Or are they? They are not. Five years later, the girls are found, feral and dangerous. After some time spent rehabilitating in a hospital, they go to live with their father’s twin brother and his girlfriend.
Even before the opening titles appear, there are clues that this will not be a horror film of the more sophisticated, intelligent or scary kind. You first get a feel for what kind of light hand Muschietti possesses when the violent father who’s kidnapped his daughters loads them into a car bearing the license plate NO1 DAD. The second, and more fatal, mistake the film makes in its early scenes – the one that damns it to be a toothless and unoriginal entry in its genre – is showing us far too much of the entirely and obviously CGI monster/ghost far too soon.
Once we get to the bulk of the film, problems persist. The aforementioned girlfriend, Annabel, is played by Jessica Chastain, who is a talented actor. Muschietti, however, doesn’t seem to trust her abilities and decides instead to rely on visual clues that are blunt like a hammer. Annabel is in a band. Not just any band but a rock band. In case we are unable to identify the style of music upon hearing it, one of her bandmates helpfully informs her and us, “You’re in a rock band.” In any case, she’s the rebellious type who doesn’t want or have time for kids, so busy is she keeping her hair dyed black and dressing like Joan Jett. This is a woman who, when she eats licorice, eats black licorice.
As the film goes on, the laziness – in an uncharacteristic move for laziness – picks up speed. Mostly, it appears in the form of tired horror movie conventions. For instance, multiple characters decide to go out to the cabin to gather more information but none seems capable of planning these excursions so that they arrive when the sun is up. Meanwhile, we get an excessive amount of portentous monologues about the nature of ghosts even though the film doesn’t appear to have a grasp on what that nature is, given that it keeps changing or adding to the rules of what such a creature can and cannot do. Also, in movies like this, when a ghost appears suddenly behind a character who doesn’t see it, what is the ghost’s motivation? Does it know the camera is there? Is this some sort of ghostly photobombing?
Though most of the film repeatedly and almost impressively does not work, it should be noted that the performances of the two young girls, played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, are appropriately animalistic and creepy. Muschietti should have taken cues from his young stars and rooted the terror in things that are believable, just nearly relatable and, therefore, all the more disturbing,
In its final act and with its final acts of incompetence, the plot plays out in a way that depends on Annabel apparently acquiring ghost-telepathy and knowing what the villain is going to do in advance. And, though it happens completely offscreen, logic insists that this ghost must be able to drive a car. The only thing more insulting to the intelligence than the story itself is the thematic implication that all women want more than anything to be mothers and that they are not complete until they realize that. That it holds such a regressive point of view may be the scariest thing about Mama.