One Hot Scary Mess of a Halloween Mama by. The Rolling Bone
I’m generally leery of PG-13 horror movies. In an attempt to attract the widest possible audience they usually have to water down the project; images that are too graphic, nudity or language that is too profane all wind up on the cutting room floor in an attempt to pass the censors, oftentimes leaving behind a toothless movie. Mama, (2013) directed by Andres’ Muschietti and produced by Guillermo Del Toro tells a story that wouldn’t require a stiffer rating, but it disappoints for what it decides to show. A modern ghost story with a very creepy premise, Mama ultimately becomes more of a CGI driven “creature flick” with an ending that underwhelms. Muschietti shows promise, and Del Toro’s fingerprints are evident, as the film does many things right. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) leads a decent cast including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game Of Thrones), but it isn’t poor acting that undoes the film. Despite a scary premise and some really disturbing visuals, the chills just don’t add up in this film but, the movie does entertain enough to mildly recommend it.
The first scenes in the movie are shot using a color filter that renders the images a dull and lifeless gray, and the first color we see is the red of a child’s hat. This technique has become a Hollywood staple since Schindler’s List, but it works to lend an almost fairy-tale like feel to the films earliest scenes. The movie begins with a frantic Father (Coster-Waldau) loading his two frightened daughters into a car, and speeding away from a horrible crime into snowy wilderness. Driving too fast for the conditions, the man sends the car over a cliff where it plummets into a snowy ravine. The trio wanders the wilderness before finding a decrepit cabin that appears abandoned. Unfortunately for his daughters, the refuge they have found will not shield them from the violence their father wishes to commit against them; luckily, “Mama” will.
Five years after that horrible day, two hunters stumble across the cabin and discover the girls still alive. They have become feral, and their odd mannerisms and movement indicate they have modeled their behavior after “something.” What exactly that “something” is becomes the focus of a psychologist (Daniel Kash) who is assigned joint custody of the girls along with their Uncle Lukas (Coster-Waldau again) and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Chastain.) The Uncle just happens to be the twin brother of their father, but Muschietti wastes the opportunity to explore why that would be especially painful for the girls. Muschietti misses the boat by not showing many of the sessions that Dr. Dreyfuss (Kash) has with Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier) as the disturbed girls are the most genuinely scary element of the movie. Instead the viewer is given most of the girls back story through the dialogue of other characters, and we come to find that a caretaker watched over the girls for the five years they spent in the cabin. Dreyfuss becomes convinced that an actual woman, the “Mama” the girls speak of, must have fostered the girls and enlists his secretary to look for clues to her identity. When strange things begin to happen in the house however, signs point to a less human kind of caretaker.
Muschietti makes great use of shadow in the film, and while flickering lights and bumps in the night are horror movie cliché, he does a good job building the suspense. A memorable scene occurs as we watch the younger daughter Lilly playing in a room down a long hallway while an off-screen Annabel carries on a conversation with Victoria. The scene is shot in such a way that we assume that Victoria is in the room playing with her younger sister, but as a door opens at the end of the hall revealing Victoria we realize something more sinister is adrift. The scene was probably among the least expensive to shoot for the film, and yet it stands out more than the later CGI effects the director employs. Movies like Jaws, Blair Witch Project, and Paranormal Activity have proven that the story and the evil unseen are what truly terrify, and yet it is disappointing because Hollywood keeps throwing big money trying to scare up big chills. “Mama” the supernatural entity is a much scarier bitch when we hear her off-camera or see the spider-like shadows she casts on dimly lit walls.
As the movie progresses we are given the story behind “Mama” through Annabel’s dreams, old news clippings, and the secretary’s conversations with Dr. Dreyfuss. The story is pretty compelling, and clues us into “Mama’s” maternal instinct for the girls. What doesn’t work is Mama’s jealousy over the character of Annabel. We are supposed to believe that the girls have built a bond with Annabel, a reluctant Mother thrust into the role of protector. The three actors just don’t spend that much time together until the last third of the movie, and by that time the movie has become a CGI “chase scene.” The movie wastes time with the side story of Uncle Lukas, when it could have concentrated on the more compelling story lines. The few spare scenes we see which are supposed to highlight the reluctant mother angle just aren’t that effective, but the movie does have a few scenes with great dialogue. Explaining “Mama” to Dr. Dreyfuss the secretary tells him that “a ghost is an emotion bent out of shape.” She goes on to explain Mother’s hideous form, explaining that corpses left to the elements begin to twist and change, but are “doomed to repeat until wrong is right.” It’s the essence of the movie, but Muschietti decides it’s not scary enough and tries to “special effect” it the rest of the way.
Muschietti does shoot many scenes right. The opening credits roll as we see crayon drawings the girls have made while in the cabin with “Mama,” and the pictures are definitely not right. In another scene the camera winds through a darkened dollhouse, the tiny figures inside posed in menacing ways before panning out to reveal the girl’s bedroom and an opening closet door. These scenes really build the suspense, and with the masterful shadow work of “Mama,” Muschietti sets the bar rather high for her actual appearance. He doesn’t reach it, and hence deflates the entire movie in the process. The movie doesn’t have the worst CGI in the world, but the director had a better movie on his hands before he went digital. It’s worth a watch but, better movies with similar themes are out there and for the record I’ll take “Ripley” and the Aliens bitch anytime.
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