One of the things I enjoy about horror is its connection with fairy tales. Anyone who has actually read Grimm’s Fairy Tales is aware of this association. It’s one of the reasons why Andrés Muschietti’s 2013 film, Mama, attracted me.
The story has a mundane, if tragic start fed to the audience in the form of a car radio news story — a dramatic stock market downturn results in the suicides of several members of a prominent investment firm. The abandoned car is parked in front of a beautiful house and there is a gunshot. The camera pans closer and the next scene is of a little girl named Victoria dressed for school. Her one-year-old sister is in her crib nearby. Their father arrives. His clothing is speckled with blood. Victoria asks, as all Fairy Tale heroines do, all the right questions, but her father, who is insane with grief, brushes her questions aside. He collects the girls and drives off into the wilderness with them. The car wrecks in the snow and they end up in an abandoned cabin, which is, naturally, haunted. Their father obviously intends to kill them and then himself, but the ghost saves the girls, and they spend five winters alone in the cabin, being raised by the ghost. Their father’s identical twin uses all the money their father left him in the search for the girls. Eventually, they are found and brought back to civilization by hired hunters. Their uncle and his punk rock girlfriend (Annabelle) get custody of the girls along with their new ‘Mama.’ Their mother’s sister makes a couple of vicious attempts to take the girls away.
And then things go horribly awry.
Actually, there are many things to love about this movie: the good father/bad father, the reluctant mother (both in the form of the ghost and the punk girl friend), the two orphan girls abandoned in the woods who are found by hunters, the ‘evil’ aunt…all are wonderful storytelling elements. They carry much potential for deep thought.
Sadly, the last half of the film isn’t among them. I wasn’t sure if the writers were working with female archetypes and didn’t know what to do with them — due to the fact that they only had the Hero’s Journey in their lexicon. The theory about a portal the ghost uses for access into this world dies abruptly along with the psychologist character. The ‘evil’ aunt isn’t actually all that evil. She wants the girls because their uncle is the identical twin of the man who shot her sister. [shrug] It’s logical as far motivations go. However, she plots to get the girls via a complaint to Child Protective Services and that goes nowhere. Thus, what should’ve absolutely resulted in an investigation and a very sticky situation for Annabelle ended in yet another lost opportunity for psychological tension. What began as a super-creepy fairy tale, ended in a hot mess.
I guess the reason I’m so disappointed in this film is because the first half was so good. I liked the ghost animation, up until the big reveal. (Frankly, it would’ve been cooler if Annabelle resembled ‘Mama.’) Maybe it’s just me, but an insane ghost with a realistic face is scarier than a cartoonish one. The moths were cool, but I don’t understand why Lily ate them, other than to gross out the audience. Quite a few decisions were made like that, apparently. The last half of Mama has a rushed, unfinished feeling. It’s as if they ran out of money and time and then wrapped everything up to meet the deadline. Either that, or a much better writer started the script and left it to lessers to finish. I’m not sure which. Either way, it simply doesn’t work. That said, the first half is well worth watching. Just stop at the point were the psychologist dies. Or stop just before that and write your own ending. Come to think of it, the movie would make a great Harris Burdick writing exercise. Sadly, it fails as a film.
——————————- The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg and one of my favorites in that it doesn’t explain anything. It consists of a series of fantastical images accompanied by a title and one line. The rest is left for the reader to fill in. I’ve always wanted to run a writer’s workshop exercise with it.