Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Mama

Mama is a horror film I've been anticipating for awhile based on its creepy trailer, and I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed. Following a market crash, a man murders his wife and takes his two young girls into the woods to end them all when he's abruptly stopped by something in a secluded cabin. Five years later his brother, the artsy Lucas, and punk rocker girlfriend Annabel, are notified the children have been found. Lucas manages to gain custody of his feral nieces, despite the efforts of their aunt. But far more threatening is the story behind the mysterious mama that kept the girls alive in the woods.

Mama stars a (a goth) Jessica Chastain (Coriolanus, Tree of Life) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), with the children being played by two very capable actresses—Megan Charpetnier and Isabelle Nélisse. Guillermo del Toro executive produces and presents, and Mama certainly fits nicely with his calibre of horror as seen in such films as Pan's Labyrinth or The Orphanage. Andrés Muschietti directs, and he's also responsible for the short of the same name.

Mama feels like an independent endeavour and that works on many levels. The theme of motherhood plays out here with Chastain, who wants nothing less than to be a mother, and is suddenly thrown into caring for two wild girls. Her journey is a good contrast to the other maternal figure we get in mama herself. She also rocks the black hair. Unfortunately that comes at the expense of more of Coster-Waldau, who fades to the background for a lot of the movie.

Mama doesn't insult the audience. The sense of dread builds up slowly, with a constant tension arising in the most mundane things, like a child's odd drawing or a crudely made doll, leaving the audience to wonder what inspired it or where exactly the teeth came from that are sown into it. The director realizes that horror doesn't need an extravagant budget—the two girls crawling around on all fours with catlike movements is far more unsettling than a CGI monster. He's also not afraid to avoid the Hollywood ending that usually knocks the wind out of similar films. As someone who is quite desensitized to plenty of horror movies it made me jump in a few scenes.

The biggest criticism is a challenge that comes with all of these genre movies—there's the willing suspension of disbelief when dealing with horror. All of us go into it with a certain amount of supernatural goings-on we're willing to put up with without getting yanked out of the experience and leaving feeling it was all ridiculous. The director has to keep that juggling act going and not get out of hand for the climax. Granted, Mama succeeds where the majority fail and Muschietti keeps it relatively reined in. But I was left feeling it could have been more subtle given how well the first three quarters went. That's more wishful thinking than a serious thumbs down. At least Mama doesn't go into overdrive like Insidious, which started out just as promising.

There are additional minor quibbles that don't detract from enjoyment of the film at all, but do provide some amusement. The moment Jane Moffat's evil aunt character shows up onscreen you know it won't end well at all. She's also the voice of Mama, incidentally. The whole psychologist plot doesn't really go anywhere, either.

Mama is a recipe for success—smart horror, child characters that are likable (!), a small and interesting cast and a pretty strong mystery to tie it all together that will allow most to overlook the flaws. Its chills rank up there with recent good horror entries—the first Paranormal Activity, The Fourth Kind, and hearkening back to something like The Descent. It could even appeal to those who don't normally go for the genre given its broader themes. Get out and see it.

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