Mama (2013) **
Question for discussion and speculation: has Guillermo Del Toro inherited Wes Craven’s mantle as the guy who’ll lend his name as “presenter” to any mediocre-to-decent horror or dark fantasy film that strikes him as faintly interesting? I haven’t yet seen The Orphanage, so I’m not really able to judge how it fits into the pattern starting to form among movies bearing “Guillermo Del Toro presents” above the title. And Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark bears way too much of a genuine Del Toro stamp to raise any such concerns about the future of the brand, so to speak. It’s Mama that gets me wondering. Mama is simply not that good, even by the more forgiving standards of Del Toro’s English-language productions, and Del Toro’s actual involvement in its creation appears to have been minimal— maybe even purely nominal. However, it’s easy enough to see what about the project would appeal to him, since it has a lot of that modern-day fairy tale feel that shines through so much of his own work. If it is the harbinger of a Craven-like campaign of presentational promiscuity, Mama at least gives reason to hope that Del Toro will choose a more interesting array of sub-optimal films to carry his imprimatur.
Jeffrey Desange (Angel of the Night’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes berserk, kills his estranged wife, and kidnaps his two little daughters from their northern Virginia home. Then he goes speeding off westward toward the mountains with no clear destination in mind. It’s snowing pretty hard, and Jeffrey is driving like the maniac he has apparently become, so nobody will be surprised when he loses control and pitches his car off the road into a heavily wooded valley. Amazingly, neither he nor the girls are seriously hurt in the crash. They are, however, all lost in the goddamned woods, with no provisions of any kind and no shelter beyond the shattered carcass of the car. And let’s not forget about that snow, either. Jeffrey and the girls enjoy a bit of luck after some hours of trudging through the forest— there’s an abandoned cabin that’s still in sufficiently good repair to protect them against the elements, even if it contains nothing to help them solve their other problems. Time, quiet, and a place to rest seem to bring Jeffrey at least partly out of his mad state. At the very least, he sobers up enough to experience a moment of clarity about what he’s done. Recognizing that he’s doomed both himself and his daughters, Jeffrey gets out the pistol he used on his wife, and prepares to finish the job. Not so fast, though. The cabin may be abandoned, but it isn’t unoccupied. The current resident is a powerful ghost, and that ghost has pronounced maternal instincts…
Jeffrey’s wife and kids were not the only family he had. There’s also his younger brother, Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). For five years, Lucas retains bounty hunters Ron (Dominic Cuzzocrea, from Repo Men and The Rats) and Burnsie (David Fox, of Population 436 and Witchcraft) to search for his missing relatives, but their services don’t come cheap. Lucas and Annabel, meanwhile, are pretty much the modern definition of “starving artist;” he’s an illustrator, and she plays bass in a punk band. Inevitably, the bounty hunters’ fees will at some point exhaust the resources Lucas is able to devote to them, and we join this part of the story just as that’s starting to happen. Luckily for Lucas, the day he begins bouncing his checks to Ron and Burnsie is also the day they finally stumble upon that cabin in the woods around Clifton Forge. The bounty hunters are stunned to find Jeffrey’s daughters still alive and in fair physical health inside it.
The children’s mental health is another matter, however. Victoria (Meghan Carpenter, of Jennifer’s Body and Little Red Riding Hood), the older sister, still seems to remember something of her old life, and to retain a smattering of the English language, but her social development has obviously been catastrophically stunted by those five years in the forest. Her sister, Lilly (Isabelle Melisse), meanwhile, has gone completely feral, even to the extent of preferring to walk on all fours. Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash, from Diary of the Dead and Aliens), the Richmond-based psychiatrist to whom Lucas and Annabel bring the girls for reintegration into human society, has high hopes for Victoria, but fears that Lilly may be a lost cause. There’s a further complicating wrinkle to the situation, too, in the form of Jeffrey’s mother-in-law, Jean Podolski (Jane Moffat). Jean understandably has a bug up her ass about the jerk who murdered her daughter and abducted her grandchildren, and her claim to be the girls’ next of kin is just as good as Lucas’s. She also has an actual job that pays actual money, and lives in an actual house that has actual space in it. Any family court judge would take one look at her, and hand the girls right over. Lucas is just as hell-bent on raising his nieces as Jean, though, no matter how fucked up they are, and no matter how much of a kink doing so will put in his accustomed lifestyle.
This is where Dr. Dreyfuss could really come in handy. It isn’t every psychiatrist who gets handed a challenge like the one the Desange girls represent, and it’s hard to think of an achievement that would carry more bragging rights in his profession than re-socializing a pair of feral children. So naturally Dreyfuss wants to say on the case, and the best way to make that happen is to make sure Lucas keeps custody of the girls. Now it just so happens that the doctor’s home institution owns a house in the DC suburbs, which it uses for tricky inpatient treatment like that required by Victoria and Lilly. If Lucas and Annabel would move into that house, they could live rent-free so long as Dreyfuss was actively working on the kids’ recovery. Annabel is leery of the distruption to their lives that such a move is sure to cause, but Lucas agrees without a moment’s hesitation.
The trouble is, Lucas, Annabel, and the children aren’t the only ones who move into Dreyfuss’s halfway house. That ghost from the cabin comes, too, and she has her own ideas about what’s in Victoria and Lilly’s best interest. For example, the ghost is of the opinion that she’s the best choice out of all the available guardians, and she’s particularly not fond of Annabel. Nevertheless, it’s Lucas whom she incapacitates first, in such a way that it looks like he just took exactly the worst kind of fall down the stairs. While Lucas lies comatose in the hospital, things get steadily weirder around the house, and Annabel becomes steadily more convinced that she’s not up to this shit. Interestingly, though, Dr. Dreyfuss catches on to the specter’s existence before Annabel does. He’s been using hypnotherapy on Victoria during his daily sessions with the girls, and his older patient keeps talking about somebody she calls “Mama” while she’s under. Victoria unmistakably is not referring to her real mother, so Dreyfuss at first takes it as a sign that the poor kid came down with a case of dissociative identity disorder during her years in the wilderness, even though neither he nor any other adult has yet observed any obvious symptoms of such a condition. Some of the things Victoria says about Mama get Dreyfuss thinking that maybe the girl built her hypothetical second personality out of pieces of local legend, or even half-remembered stories from the TV news, but his investigations lead him in a most unexpected direction. Victoria describes Mama as an escapee from a mental hospital near Clifton Forge who lost her infant daughter in a fall from a cliff while trying to dodge the men who’d been sent out to find them, and that story is an eerily good match for Edith Brennan, whose case the doctor’s secretary (Elva Mai Hoover, from The Gate II: Trespassers and Class of 1984) uncovers in the state archives. Ghoulishly enough, the skeleton of Edith’s baby is on file there, too. As the latter point suggests, Edith’s escape and demise happened a long time ago— all the way back in 1878!— and have been utterly forgotten since then. It’s hard to imagine, in other words, how Victoria could have found out about her. Furthermore, none of the techniques Dreyfuss knows for making contact with a DID patient’s alternate personalities have any effect on Victoria. That would seem to refute the supposition that Mama is an inhabitant of the child’s mind. But if Mama is a real person, the best match is someone who died 135 years ago. Naturally, Dreyfuss is reluctant to share what he’s starting to suspect, but he’d do well to overcome that reluctance. Annabel, Lucas, the kids, and even Jean Podolski could really use a hand just now.
Somebody could have made a really fine movie on the premise behind Mama. Unfortunately, Andres and Barbara Muschietti apparently weren’t that somebody. Mama isn’t a bad movie, certainly, and it’s crammed with nifty ideas. A pair of feral children raised by a supernatural entity that doesn’t want to give them up is one of the strongest starting points for a story I’ve encountered in ages. Framing the central conflict as a struggle between a dead woman desperate to be a mother again, and a living woman who never wanted to be one in the first place, was a minor stroke of genius. Making the psychiatrist the first person to catch on that something supernatural is afoot upends a very old genre cliché in a very satisfying manner. And there’s plenty of honestly spooky stuff in this movie, reflecting a commendable range of influences from classic childhood anxieties to Japanese ghost movies of the post-Ring era. In particular, there’s one scene where Edith is lurking underneath Annabel’s bed that’s almost worth the price of admission all by itself. The problem is, Andres Muschietti, in his capacity as director, doesn’t trust the power of the material. Despite having almost no need of jump scares, Mama relies with insulting regularity on loud, clumsy musical stings and related stupid soundtrack tricks. Scenes that deftly imply horrible things are allowed to drag on into increasing obviousness, until even the least perceptive halfwit can’t fail to get the picture. And visual gimmicks that are intensely unnerving the first or second time we see them are repeated until they become so mundane that the viewer starts picking apart the technique behind them, just to have something interesting to think about.
Mama also suffers from a lack of tonal coherence. It’s that especially which ruins an ending that I ought to love, given my tastes overall. At bottom, the Muschiettis and fellow screenwriter Neil Cross can’t seem to make up their minds whether their tragic monster is tragic first and monstrous second, or vice versa. They also can’t seem to decide how far we’re supposed to trust the children, or whether we’re supposed to take their desires seriously into account in evaluating the possible outcomes to this story. So when I say that it’s impossible to determine whether Mama comes to a happy ending or not, I mean not that it’s legitimately and bravely ambiguous (like, say, Let the Right One In), but that the filmmakers don’t seem to grasp all the implications of what they’re saying. That’s most unfortunate, because a bit more clarity of vision alone could probably have turned Mama into a close approximation of the film it deserved to be.