Collins’ Crypt: On MAMA’s Success

Think what you like of MAMA - the takeaway here is that the year's most successful horror film was original. 

As of this writing, Mama is the highest grossing genre film of the year, and will likely remain there until the fall, when the usual heavy hitters come along - but even then, it's not like the usual Halloween release scores $71 million - even the last Paranormal Activity sequel didn't hit that mark. And while it didn't sit well with everyone (I quite liked it, though others felt it was too slow moving and that the CGI enhanced monster looked silly), the important thing to take away here is that the year's most successful horror film was, for all intents and purposes, an original film. While Mama was in theaters, fans had choices of sequels (Texas Chainsaw 3D), spoofs (A Haunted House), spoof sequels (Scary Movie 5), and remakes (Come Out and Play, which doesn't really count since it was a limited release, but it's still fun to beat up on Makinov and his terrible movie*), and yet the original was the one they went with (and no, the PG-13 wasn't the only factor - they also wisely ignored Last Exorcism II).

To be fair, Mama is a full length version of a short film of the same name, but honestly if you've seen it (it's on the new Blu-ray, if you haven't) you'd know that it's barely even fair to refer to it as an "adaptation" of anything as the short is basically one scene with almost zero context. The Jessica Chastain character, the shrink, the girls' tragic upbringing... none of this is even hinted at in the short, as it merely depicts a quick scare scene and shows off the impressive skills of director Andy Muschietti, who made his feature debut on the full length (which restages pretty much the entire short in a sequence). And that's what excites me; whether you ultimately liked the movie or not, it was the first nonsequel/remake horror film to score that big at the box office since 2009, a sigh of relief for anyone attempting to launch their own original property and being given the runaround by producers who merely want to cash in on known commodities. Hell even Guillermo del Toro's name - which factored heavily in the marketing - isn't exactly a recipe for success; his previous horror film as producer (2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark) was a failure, and that had the benefit of his screenwriting as well. So why did it sell so many tickets?

Well for starters, it was built around a solid mystery; they don't waste too much time trying to hide the fact that Mama is real and not a figment of a disturbed child's imagination, but who she is and what she wants takes some digging, including (yes!) digging through old records at the town hall and walking around a giant warehouse filled with boxed/forgotten evidence. I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, and hate that modern technology has largely phased these sort of scenes out in favor of folks reading Google or Wikipedia (though this has some computer research scenes too), so I'm always happy when they get worked into a modern movie in a way that makes sense. And the backstory is interesting enough to warrant being revealed in small chunks throughout the movie but not so convoluted or elaborate that it takes away from the present day peril or scares, which can be a tough thing to balance. Indeed, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark fell into this trap; Katie Holmes' character went to investigate far too long into the movie, by which point the creatures had already lost their novelty value due to overuse (and it left many questions unanswered anyway).

Also in its favor was that it was actually pretty creepy/scary. Taking a page from Insidious, it was mercilessly free of fake scares - no one backs into a loved one and shrieks, or awkwardly stands behind them in a bathroom until they shut the medicine cabinet and see their reflection. No, instead the scares work on a more subtle and unnerving level, like when we see the younger girl (Lily) playing tug-of-war with someone off-screen. We assume it's her sister Victoria, but then Victoria appears at the other end of the hall as the game continues. That's the sort of bit that can really spook an audience and sustain their fear for a full scene, as opposed to these dumb jolt scares that serve only to deflate tension for nothing and make the movie obnoxious (not to mention fail to hold up to repeat viewings). Add in a rather ballsy ending and the rare dream sequence in a non-Freddy horror film that's actually a highlight, and it's not too surprising that the film did well.

But ultimately, I'd like to think that horror fans were just excited for something new. I know producers tend to think that a "built in audience" is the best way to ensure success, but when that audience has been screwed over (TCM3D, for example, being a film that returns to the original timeline but ignores two of those sequels, and follows a polarizing prequel entry from the other timeline), they're just as likely to turn their nose at it. A new property might take a little more effort to market (who can forget the laughable "If it's Halloween it must be Saw" campaign that accompanied TWO of that series' later entries?), but it will pay off when you reach a group of people who don't have any reason to turn their back on it just yet. Hilariously, while Universal is looking to make a sequel, Muschietti has already said he has no interest in it, and both Del Toro and star Jessica Chastain probably have better things to do as well - hopefully they take all of this as a sign that maybe they should just leave well enough alone.

The Blu-ray streets today (May 7th) and comes packed with the usual goodies, such as a handful of deleted scenes (mostly deserving of excision, though the two with the Daniel Kash character are worth a watch), a fluffy making of, and a commentary by Muschietti and his co-writer/producer/sister Barbara that offers up some minor insights but is mostly pretty quiet and "stock" (rule of thumb - if the participants sign off the second the credits begin to roll instead of chatting all the way to the end, it's probably not a very exciting track**). Del Toro also provides an intro for the short that's almost as long as the piece itself, and both it and the deleted scenes also have optional commentary with the Muschiettis. Finally, a look at the film's visual FX is definitely worth watching, as you can see what parts of Mama were CGI (her hair, mostly) and which were achieved through old-fashioned prosthetics and camera tricks. I personally hate the CGI hair and found it quite distracting, but it's great to see that it was mostly done right (Del Toro explains he would never want to do an all CGI creature). The transfer is solid; the final showdown seems darker than I recall but detail is always crisp and black levels are accurate, which puts this in the "win" column either way. A Spanish language track as well as a "Descriptive video" audio track for the visually impaired - I turned it on for a few seconds (trying to access the commentary) and was delighted to learn that he even describes the Universal logo! "In a black star sprinkled sky, we soar backward over Earth, as massive block letters of gold and silver orbit into view..."

Oh and since it's a modern movie, the Blu-ray package comes with several hundred other, inferior ways to watch the movie. The Muschiettis and Del Toro put a lot of effort into creating a rich atmosphere and memorable set design, so try not to insult them by watching the movie on your fucking iPhone, huh?

I should stress I'm not anti-remake in general; more often than not I'm more intrigued than worried, and remain optimistic even after being burned time and time again. But nothing breaks my heart more than when an original horror flick is crushed by some sequel, or (worse) hearing from a filmmaker that his/her original pitch went nowhere at a studio as they actively tried to get someone to direct a remake they happened to have the rights to. So even if you didn't like Mama, I hope you can see that successful original horror movies are a good thing in the long run.

*A remake of Who Can Kill A Child?, which is a must see if you're a fan of the evil child sub-genre.

**This isn't an invite to cite examples where it's not the case. There are always exceptions. But I've listened to enough to recognize this as a pattern.

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