The Mad Woman in the… Cabin?
Guillermo del Toro’s films have all the elements that I love in horror movies: creepy yet beautiful imagery, atmospheric settings, a creative storyline, and intensely suspensful, dark shadows that make you check the backseat of your car when you leave the movie theater. Skip Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but do yourself a favor and watch Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and my favorite – The Devil’s Backbone.
So as you could imagine, I was very excited to see his newest film, Mama, about two very young sisters, Victoria (about 4) and Lilly (a baby), whose father abandons them in a dark, creepy cabin in the woods after killing their mother. Fending for themselves with the help of a supernatural entity named “Mama,” the girls survive, but when the two are placed in the care of their hipster, musician uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and his bandmate/girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Mama remains with them, terrorizing the family.
This had everything going for it, in my mind – the spooky woods, the scary house, the kids! I’m sorry, but give me a scary kid over Jason or Freddy any time – kids are freaky!
del Toro is listed as executive producer on this film, not as writer or director, and you can tell. The screenplay was written by Neil Cross, a television writer, and directed by Andres Muschietti, making his feature film directorial review with Mama.
1) No Chemistry between the characters.
2) Clichéd backstory.
3) “Mama” isn’t scary, she’s silly-looking.
4) The “changed” children in the beginning look like something out of The Nightmare Before Christmas. What should be emaciated, frighteningly-feral children look like they’re animated, which completely removes the scary element – at least, it did for me.
5) The little girl’s rotten teeth.
The backstory is that “Mama” is the ghost of a woman who ran away from an insane asylum with her baby in the 19th century.
Ho-hum, color me bored. At this point, in order for the whole “back in the 19th century” storyline to be scary, it has to be interesting and original. It’s not enough just to say that a crazy woman ran away with a baby — it just isn’t. Olden times aren’t automatically frightening, at least not to me. Who was this woman, and why did she run away? We don’t even see the woman’s face until we are shown a picture from her found in the town’s archives. Look at how terrifying Samara’s mother was in The Ring and we mostly saw her brushing her hair in front of a mirror before catching a glimpse of us and turning abruptly to make eye contact. I get shivers just thinking about that — the costumes, the cinematography, it was all perfect. But this film had nothing of that cold eerie-ness. It felt like a made-for-tv movie.
The mad woman’s fate is a grim one — after being chased by the police, she jumps off a cliff holding her baby in order to commit suicide – however, the baby is left hanging on a branch and perishes there instead of dying with her mother. This has made Mama’s soul restless, and apparently, she is in search of children to care for, and the two girls were a perfect target – having been abandoned in a creepy cabin in the woods, after all.
The girls are found in the woods by a couple of slacker investigators hired by Lucas. I expected their reveal scene to be the best part of the film. Kids are scary, and messed up kids are even scarier. When the two investigators enter the cabin, Victoria and Lilly scamper around the house in fright like Tim Burton characters. Instead of looking like scary kids who have been living alone in a creepy cabin alone for years, they look like street urchins who have been mud-wrestling.
Victoria and Lilly are under the care of a psychiatrist (Daniel Cash) who tries, through a series of therapy sessions, observation, and hynposes, to tease out exactly what Mama is to Victoria. The hypnosis scenes aren’t even scary, and they lack the real suspense of say, The Sixth Sense when Malcom hears the haunted souls of the dead talking to his young patient, or in The Exorcist when Karras listens to Regan’s tapes. Once their psychiatrist discovers that this demon is real, through his local library/archive and an extremely and unusually helpful archivist, he decides to go to the cabin alone, at night, to check it out.
Great idea. That’s about as useful as fighting Jaws with a fish hook. Of course, he dies, but what else would you expect? I think he wins the “Stupidest Attempt” award.
Now let’s talk about Lilly’s teeth. Okay, I get that a child living in the woods and foraging for food like dead squirrels and pitted cherries is probably not going to practice good dental hygeine. But my God, that girl’s teeth! Every time she opened her mouth I was repulsed by the greenish brown mess between her teeth. Yuck!
And by the way, why is it that in horror movies, sex always leads to something scary?
Granted, this “sex scene” is nothing more than Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau about to kiss, but as soon as they go in for the embrace, she sees Mama in the mirror behind them.
It was weird to see Chastain in this role – clad in dark washed denim, vintage band tee-shirts and full of tattoos – after seeing her so recently as the uptight yet vehement CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty. She did well in the role of the girlfriend of the rocker who wanted nothing to do with kids, but reluctantly accepted the very freaky situation out of her love for him.
The climax of the film comes when Mama attemps to re-enact her suicide by jumping off the very same cliff in the woods with the Victoria and Lilly. Lilly wants to go with her, probably because Mama is the only maternal figure she has ever known, but Victoria refuses and decides to stay with Annabel, whom she has grown fond of. It makes for a very “awww” moment. As Mama and Lilly jump off the cliff, they hit the same branch that took the life of her first child, and the pair of them burst into a cloud of butterflies. One particularly pretty butterfly lands on Victoria’s hand and Victoria, looking closely at it, exclaims, “Lilly…?”
At this point I kind of threw up my hands and decided there were no redeeming qualities of this film. I mean, butterflies? I guess this decision creates closure in that Annabel, Lucas, and Victoria can now be a family, but still – their baby just jumped off a cliff with a demon?
All in all, this film was a bomb. Better luck next time, Benny.