Warning: Spoilers for the film Mama herein, as well as Sinister and maybe Paranormal Activity. I might spoil nine or 10 other movies just because I’m on a role.
Mama, the recently released, Guillermo del Toro-produced horror movie about two feral kids who are rediscovered and brought back to society, certainly has a few missteps built in. The way it handles its monster, however, largely isn’t one of them.
One of the things that most bothers me about many monster movies is the lack of said creature’s ability to actually become menacing.
Much too often, ghosts, demons and other creatures are used in service of Being Ominous. You know — they pop up now and again, or a character turns and what was previously hidden turns out to be hiding something awful. And many times in horror movies, the character will cry out and then blink and the thing will be gone.
That’s dumb. What’s more, it’s irritating.
Lots of times, this sort of slow-burn horror mentality is geared toward amping up the pace slowly over time. Nobody wants to hit the biggest hill of the rollercoaster immediately and then spend the rest of the ride coasting, after all. So most horror movies will start with their monsters killing somebody to show how spooky they really are, and then we’ll have 90 more minutes of… ghosts toying with people, I guess.
You know ghosts. They’re silly like that.
Take, for example, Sinister. This is a movie that has protagonist Ellison progressively finding more and more evidence of the presence of a demon in a series of family murders dating back 30 or 40 years. Viewing the demon in videos give it a conduit into the real world, and the effect makes Ellison increasingly more paranoid. The rest of the movie is concerned with weird noises that Ellison follows around his house, with creepy things happening around or to him.
But by creepy things, I mean he sees scary things. Twice (!) in the movie does the demon stick its face in the camera and give us all a good jump. (It’s to the movie’s detriment that the demon looks kinda dumb up close, so these moments actually kind of kill what makes it frightening.) But that’s all it does. Sinister is a haunted house on Halloween: The creatures can jump out at you, but they aren’t allowed to actually touch characters.
The Paranormal Activity movies are also largely guilty of this. You’ve got a movie predicated on an invisible demon stalking around a house, but it’s rare that the demon actually does anything except bang doors shut. All three movies are at their best when people start getting dragged around by invisible forces, and it doesn’t happen until much later. The hand-waiving explanation for all this is that the demon needs to drum up fear in order to be powerful (I think). It’s a common explanation in horror movies because it gives the filmmakers lots of chances to slowly escalate the scares without actually having anything happen.
But as I said before, that’s dumb. A monster that just looks at you and shouts “Boo!” is hardly a monster at all. That’s a Scooby Doo episode. If your horror movie is a Scooby Doo episode, you’re doing horror wrong, because the result is a film in which there are zero stakes. No danger to the characters means a story without teeth, and the scares end up feeling cheap in the end — which they mostly are.
Back to Mama. The story’s focus is on two small girls, who are lost in the wilderness for five years, from the time they’re three and one. When they’re found again, they’re feral, but slowly are reintroduced into regular life; however, it quickly becomes apparent that some paranormal force, which they refer to as “Mama,” was helping to take care of them.
Already, the monster has more of a drive than most. It’s not standing around looking for people to scare and then eat or whatever, it’s just into interacting with the kids. There’s an involved backstory of the ghost variety here — she lost her baby and so she’s fixated on the kids — but for the most part, Mama is just hanging out with the kids she’s been raising.
It’s when those kids are threatened or when jealousy overtakes her that Mama becomes dangerous. There aren’t many characters that Mama needs to hurt or kill, so it doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen. Make the creature angry and it lashes out; so the stakes of the movie are set high for the protagonists pretty early, and it’s clear that they are actually in real danger, not just in danger of something jumping out at you. Although that also happens.
Mama devastates a few lives through the course of the movie, and not just at the movie’s conclusion. And that’s why it works as a monster flick or a ghost story: the monster is an active member of the story, and doesn’t exist purely to facilitate jump scares. As the action ramps up toward the story’s conclusion, it mostly feels pretty natural. And the monster is scary because it has drive. And not weird ghost logic drive, but an actual stake in the goings on of the plot.
It helps to make things a lot more dangerous, and thus, a lot spookier.