Some Serious Questions About the New Horror Movie 'Mama'

The Atlantic Wire

Riding the subway back downtown after a screening of the new ghost movie Mama, my viewing partner and I posed few questions to each other about what we'd just seen. We continued asking these questions even once we were off the subway and comfortably ensconced in a window seat at a snug East Village bar. We had lots of questions, is the point. And so, in lieu of writing a full-on review of this senseless and tediously dumb movie, I'm just going to, as an homage to Pete Wells, pose some of those questions, put them out into the inter-ether and wait not-very-expectantly for a response. Beware: spoilers abound.

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1. Why is the creepy abandoned cabin in the Virginia woods, where a ruined financier (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who's just killed his business partners and wife takes his two daughters to kill them, decked out in dusty 1970s furniture? I mean, that's fine, cabins got abandoned in the '70s same as any decade, but then what specific connection does the 140-year-old ghost who saves the girls from their daddy have with this relatively contemporary (and, if you cleaned it up, quite lovely) abode? And why does the camera linger on the name of the house, written on a little plaque outside, if the name plays no part in the rest of the movie? Is this all just spooky set-up with no real meaning behind it?

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2. Why does the financier's brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) — who spent five years looking for his two nieces before they are discovered, feral and wild, in the cabin — deserve to have custody of the girls over their mother's sister? I get that she's frosty and blonde and Lucas is a hip artist with a rocker grrl wife/girlfriend named Annabel (Jessica Chastain), but beyond that? Why is this barely working guy with a reluctant life partner such a better candidate than this woman of equal relation to the children who can offer them stability and seeming affluence? Are we simply to go along with the movie's early failings in logic and sense-making because we're told to?

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3. Back to those feral children, you're telling me, Mama, that two little girls running around like animals in a pretty well-situated cabin in Virginia of all places weren't found for five years? What, did the locals forget that cabin existed? Or did they just think, "Aw heck, those littl'uns probably aren't in that furnished cabin, that'd be crazy"?

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4. Why do Annabel and Lucas so unquestioningly agree to live in the house that the creepy psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) offers them? What even is this house? And if it's a science house, meant for observation of patients, where are the cameras? Also what? Do such things even exist? Surely this isn't just some lame excuse to get the characters out of their cramped apartment and into a spooky, dark, drafty home, right?

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5. If one of the two girls, the younger one Lilly (the rather remarkable Isabelle Nélisse), is as feral as she appears to be, would she really be sent to live with relative strangers so quickly? And would the two girls really be left alone with their uncle's girlfriend after the uncle suffers a mysterious accident and is laid up in the hospital? If Dr. Dreyfuss has these kids in an observation house, where's the observation? He stops by like twice in the movie, shouldn't he be there more often?

6. And when exactly does Dr. Dreyfuss figure out that the girls have brought a ghostly presence with them? When did he have time to write all the stuff that, of course, Annabel eventually finds and reads? Is Dr. Dreyfuss evil? Simply curious about the supernatural? It can't be that he's simply a hollow device used for the dispensing of exposition, can it?

7. About this ghost: if she has as many powers as she displays in the film's turgid and nonsensical climax, why doesn't she just use her scary ghost abilities on the first night? Or when the girls were at the hospital after they were discovered? What use does a 140-year-old ghost hellbent on one thing have with toying with people? Why all the subtle scares? Why not just fly over there and grab the kids at the first possible moment? Does it seem odd to anyone else that a ghost would be concerned with the plot mechanics of a steadily mounting suspense story?

8. And hey, once we find out what the ghost's ultimate mission is, where's the explanation for why she didn't just do it five years ago, the day she found the two little ones in the cabin? What was the wait for? Do ghosts just change their minds like that, say "Oh hey, actually I want to do this with you now," after five years together? Is capriciousness a common ghostly trait, or does the movie just invent shit when it wants to because why the hell not?

9. What exactly are the rules of this movie? Is the ghost flying to and from the cabin and the science house? Or are those holes in the walls with moths crawling out of them some sort of portal system, like the space tunnels in Contact? If so, why bother? Seems awfully elaborate for an extremely powerful supernatural being, doesn't it? And why do the two little girls seem to know that Mama will get jealous and go after Annabel and Lucas? Has Mama gone after people in the past? Does that mean that people did find them in the cabin, but Mama just killed them? If so, why didn't anyone notice that people kept going missing near that cabin? And why didn't Mama kill the two old guys who eventually found the girls and took them away? Was she out on an errand? Where is Mama when she's not around?

10. What happened to Annabel and Lucas's little dachshund? Why did he just disappear after one or two scenes?

11. Why does a ghost, possibly the ghost of Lucas's brother but possibly Mama, type "M A M A M A M A M A M A" on a hospital computer before Lucas has a prophetic dream? What's the point of that? Also, why do some current horror movie makers think computers are scary when computers are not scary? And why do some current horror movie makers think that cheap computer animated ghouls are scary when they just look like dumb videogames? Why does Mama move like a stickbug when she is the ghost of a person, not the ghost of a stickbug? If Mama can possess people's bodies, as she does at one point, why didn't she do that to Jessica Chastain way in the beginning of the movie? Why does Mama keep doing arbitrary, poorly designed things that are supposed to look scary? Are these people, including director Andrés Muschietti, simply winging it, making up stuff as they go along? Are people really supposed to pay $13 to see someone pile lame special effects on top of a sorta interesting initial premise and enjoy it?

12. Is this really the kind of thing that producer Guillermo del Toro wants to attach his name to?

13. Why does it seem so hard these days for people to make horror movies that actually are well thought-out and have some degree of narrative cohesion? Do people really go in for video game-level special effects arbitrarily thrown at the screen with lazy thoughtlessness? Doesn't it seem odd that the bar has been moved so low? Even in the wake of great ghost movies like The Others and The Ring?

14. Finally, do we think this stinker will affect Jessica Chastain's Oscar chances?

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