After we saw this movie this morning, Amanda and I had a discussion about the horror films we had seen recently. We usually are willing to go, and usually sorry we went, or at least disappointed. This morning has not broken the trend. We both agreed that the last time we saw horror films that worked for us was “The Crazies” and “Drag Me to Hell.” Both of those are a couple of years old now, and we are still plugging along hoping for something that will give us a shiver and be glad that the lights are on. “Mama” starts off with great promise but ultimately fails to deliver.
The opening of this movie is maybe the best set up for a horror film I can remember in a dozen years or so. Before any ghosts or spirits make an appearance, we are horrified to see the desperate acts of a man at the end of his rope. Too often this story plays out in the real world and it is not an entertaining one. The anguish that the man feels can never justify what has happened but there is a sense of understanding of the emotional turmoil a person can go through. The little girl who plays the three year old Victoria in the story is just perfect. It is hard to say if she is a good actor, but in the part she delivers the right kind of innocence and trust and anxiety all at the same time. The sequence ends with the arrival of our apparition and everything has hooked us in for a strong horror experience. When the story picks up five years later, there is another very creepy sequence with the discovery of the two sisters and their return to the world. After this, things begin to fall apart.
It is a cliche to say less is more, especially in a horror film. Everyone is aware that the visualization of the evil spirit or monster can almost never live up to the imagination that we have been working on. Short shots in shadows and quick glimpses in a mirror or across a doorway are usually good for making the audience anxious and a little bit scared. Unfortunately, we need more for the story to pay off. Sometimes, like in the film “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense”, the ideas get really good and surprising and they work to frighten us. Most of the time we end up with something like this, where the horror images are the focus of the last third of the story and they are a let down. A previously, nearly invisible antagonist becomes visible and then there is a confrontation that just does not work.
One of the reasons that the frights don’t work as well here is that the audience has become jaded by CGI effects. The artists who put this material together can visualize almost anything, and as a consequence they do. When those images are so removed from anything bordering on “realistic”, the image simply becomes a grotesque cartoon. That’s what happens here, the spirit appears and then we get a chase film featuring a dark version of an animated nightmare. Slasher movies have a edge on ghost stories because when the fright comes it feels real. I think a ghost story can get away with being dismissed if it can achieve a level of believability. Unfortunately, “Mama” just can’t do this. The unrealistic nightmare story of a movie like “Phantasm”, feels more real despite the fact that it does not take place in an ordinary universe. Look, there are two or three good jumps, and a disturbingly real looking fall down a staircase, but the payoff feels weak.
Story does in these movies as well. There is always a complicated explanation and then a sequence of revelations that tell us what kind of result to expect. “Mama” has some nightmare visualizations that never amount to anything. The Uncle has a vision of his dead brother, which forces him out of his hospital bed to investigate. Once he arrives at the scene that he envisioned, nothing happens. The psychiatrist in the story is freaked out enough to stop his session in the comfortable home where the developing family is living, but he is not so perturbed as to refrain from going into the woods alone, into a spooky house in search of a ghost, in the dark. The vengeful spirit is pursuing a secret agenda. The psychiatrist find a key part of the puzzle from a government clerk who helped him earlier with other information. Unfortunately, instead of a creepy story being revealed in a mundane file drawer in an office building, the director (and co-screenwriter) chooses to try to amp it up by hiding this key piece of physical evidence in a warehouse that looks like it was lit by the same interior decorator of Hannibal Lecter’s cell. It is also so cavernous that I would not be surprised if the Arc of the Covenant wasn’t also hidden there.
Jessica Chastain’s character Annabelle is the most real person in the story. She is ambivalent about participating in the recovery of the girls. She resents the life changes it imposes on her and sometimes she is just a bitch to her boyfriend. Yet she is also a woman who can empathize with two frightened little girls. We can see a potential for a loving relationship and that part of the story works. The idea that jealousy in a spirit might provoke danger is an interesting one, but it is not consistently followed. The spirit here acts in ways that are capricious and have nothing to do with the back story. The resolution makes no sense and the creep factor was gone twenty minutes before the story was over. There are a couple of scares but nothing to make me say, “I Remember Mama”.