My decision to see the new horror film Mama today was made with great trepidation, and even that’s understating it a bit. I hate seeing horror movies in theaters. The jump scares are too loud and the scary images are too big. I like watching them at home, where I have the option of muting the audio when I know that a loud orchestral sting and a distorted face are about to suddenly come on. Still, I had nothing better to do, so in I went.
I was pleasantly surprised by Mama, not because I expected it to be bad, but because it works on a different level than most other films in its genre. Yes, there are jump scares aplenty and plenty haunted house tropes, but there was something distinctly off about Mama, and in a good way. It seems to be made by a really good filmmaker who has never seen a haunted house movie before. They don’t know that it’s okay not to try in these movies, that people will buy tickets anyway. Still, in spite of this assurance, they charged ahead with a horror movie that has a surprising dedication to its characters and themes. The director knows exactly what he’s doing in every scene. Many newbie horror directors imitate without knowing why certain tropes actually work. Director Andres Muschietti understands horror cinema, and he knows how to push your buttons. He’s also surprisingly artful. A dream sequence in the middle of the film is a standout, and one of my favorite scenes of the year so far. It’s simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, and it feels exactly like a nightmare that someone would have. This is a scene that really shook me, on a level that most horror movies really don’t.
You don’t expect to be particularly invested in the personal lives of horror movie characters, but the core characters of Mama are actually pretty fleshed-our and interesting, and you grow to care about them in a way that is deeper than, “This is scary, I feel bad for them.” Hell, in a nice twist, even the titular ghost is a three-dimensional character with a deep personal history and strong emotions beyond, “RAR I AM A SCARY GHOST, LOOK HOW SCARY I AM.” Now that’s a rare trait for a horror movie. Even in movies that are held up as paragons of the genre, like The Exorcist, the villain’s motivation is little more than, “Humans suck, I like messing with them.” You’re not going to find yourself rooting for Mama at any point, but you do grow to pity her and understand where she’s coming from.
I can see Mama being criticized for showing its ghost too much. Jaws taught us all that a monster is scarier if you keep it in the shadows and don’t put it on screen too much. Mama goes in the other direction. At around the halfway point, Mama is prominently shown, and we see her clearly in all of her appearances from that point on. Again, I can see people finding this boring, and feeling as though it defangs her to an extent, but I found it refreshing. Mama is, as I mentioned, a character in the movie just as much as any of the humans, so to keep her obscured and hidden would have actually lessened her presence as opposed to increasing it. I will say, though, that the physical design of her character isn’t original in any way. A creepy rotted ghost in tattered black clothes with twisting limbs and long, face-obscuring hair is something we’ve seen a million times. Maybe they wanted to make her more familiar to an audience, so that we connected with her more? That’s probably reading too much into it.
Not everything about Mama works. In case you didn’t know, it is an adaptation of a short film of the same name, by the original creators, and movies of that nature always seem to suffer a little bloat. When you feel like you’ve told your story succinctly in three minutes, it’s understandable to have some trouble with extending it to 90+ minutes. The original short is recreated pretty much shot-for-shot about 3/4 of the way through, and strangely it seems to contrast with the overall tone of the film more than it fits. There are certain characters and subplots that are irritating, and which never go anywhere, but cutting them would have chopped 20 minutes out of the movie, and that’s kind of ridiculous for a movie that’s only about 100 minutes long as it is. The character of the aunt in particular stands out as completely unnecessary and annoying. She contributes nothing thematically, and every time she shows up the movie grinds to a halt. She’s not a major character, but in a rewrite I would have gotten rid of her.
Mama is a movie about parenthood, grief, loss, and love. It has some great scares, and it’s much better than it has any right to be. I happened to show up early, and the credits of an earlier screening of the film were just ending. The film ends with a dedication from the directors:
“To our Mom.”
I’m sure she’s proud. Mama is a solid horror film, and sure to be a cult classic in the years to come.