10 July 2013

Flash Review: Mama (2013)

Mama (2013)
Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet.

I didn’t see Mama in theaters, although it seems everyone else did: when studio wisdom predicted the horror crowds would line up for Texas Chainsaw 3D, they instead packed into an original PG-13 fright flick. As Brian Collins from Horror Movie a Day pointed out, this is a win for the genre.

Now that I’ve seen Mama, I understand why audiences enjoyed it. It offers strong atmosphere and legitimate scares that build not from simple “shock ‘em” jumps, but thoughtful directorial construction. One sequence that stands out is a shot where we see a little girl playing tug-of-war with someone off-screen, who we assume is her older sister. But then the sister comes walking down the hall and we have a “Whose hand was I holding?” stunner straight from The Haunting. The best terror moment features a strobing flash on a camera burning the screen white so the afterimages on the viewers’ eyeballs enhance the approach of… something wicked!

The something wicked, the titular “Mama,” ends up one of the film’s disappointments. When the restless spirit that has appointed itself guardian over two feral children, Victoria (Charpentier) and Lily (INélisse), remains a shadow hiding in corners or slipping from closets, it’s a shivery ghoulie. When the finale forces Mama into full view, the CGI deflates the tension and she appears a touch silly. Javier Botet is credited as playing Mama; when his physical performance comes through, the spider contortions of Mama look grisly. But CGI overcomes in the almost-but-not-quite letdown climax.

Mama originates from a short film by Spanish brother and sister Andrés and Bárbara Muschietti. The story is mostly routine ghost business that shatters no expectations. Lucas Desange (Coster-Waldau) and his rocker chick girlfriend Annabel Moore (Chastain) take on the responsibility of caring for Lucas’s nieces, who disappeared five years ago after their father killed their mother and took the girls to an empty shack. Annabel ends up primary caretaker, a role she isn’t prepared for, especially when the girls’ supposedly imaginary friend starts to manifest. Meanwhile, a psychologist (Kash) investigates to find out the origins of “Mama.”

Considering how average much of the story is, and that I never developed an emotional connection to the adult characters, Mama carries itself well. Credit goes to Muschetti’s direction and the riveting work from the child actresses. Jessica Chastain has the largest arc (will Annabel embrace motherhood?), but Annabel never emerges as a strong character. The emotional heart of the story is the two girls and Mama, so even during the CGI-monster madness ending, the movie gets hold of a few heartstrings to tug.

Guillermo del Toro’s name is on the film as Executive Producer, and his presence is felt in the moldy storybook pages appearance, focus on children, and nasty obsession with insects. Lots of icky moths in this one.

Mama is better horror than mainstream audiences usually get, so I hope its success provides us a few more original productions that run on creepiness rather than bland sequel/remake fumes.