– Summary –
Director : Andres Muschietti
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Morgan McGarry, Isabelle Nelisse, Maya & Sierra Dawe, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Leah Mae Villalobos, David Fox.
Approx Running Time : 100 Minutes
Synopsis: After living wild for five years, two young girl are returned to their family to readjust to the world; unfortunately, they’ve brought something ghostly back with them.
What we think : Polished, stylish horror flick delivers plenty of skin-crawling spooks, thanks mainly to the performance of Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse, while dual Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain manages to give her (generic) leading lady character some nuance and depth, albeit surrounded by darkness and scares. Mama isn’t the most original film out there, nor does it satisfy like it should, but the gut punch nature of Muchietti’s crash-wallop editing and use of eerie visual effects, makes Mama a good – but not great – genre flick with plenty of general appeal.
This is why my kids sometimes freak me out.
After snagging a Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in consecutive years, Jessica Chastain wasn’t the first person you’d think of to lead a spooky, darkness-enshrouded scare-flick right off the bat. Yet, here we are, watching her run about with a dark bobcut and tattoos, trying to give her melancholy leading lady character some sense of sanity amongst Mama’s creepy, flickering-light, guttural-vocalisation, staccato-movement frights. Just the fact Chastain signed up for this gives Mama a level of credibility that might not have existed were she not an “Oscar nominee”; her co-star, Game Of Thrones alum Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, fares a lot worse in the character department, but then, you’re not here for people crying and wailing dramatically – you’re here for the scares. If so, you’ll be happy, because Mama has them in spades, although there’s a lot of darkened fumbling to get to where you need to, to be truly shocked and scared.
After killing his wife and taking his children into the woods to murder them, Jeffrey Desange (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is killed by a mysterious entity within the building; an entity which cares for the two abandoned girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nilesse). Five years later, their uncle, Jeffrey’s identical twin Lucas, recovers the girls after they are found by a pair of searching hunters. In returning them to society, psychiatrist Dr Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) recommends that Lucas takes the girls to a special house constructed for research by his university, where they will live with Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). No sooner have the girls moved into the house with Lucas and Annabel, than the entity known as “Mama”moves in too, playing with the girls as she had for the five years previous. However, when Lucas is put into a coma after Mama tries to kill him, Annabel takes up the (unwanted) slack of caring for the two minors, and coming into the focus of Mama’s rage herself. With Dr Dreyfuss discovering the truth behind Mama, and with Annabel in increasing danger, Mama begins to take control of the girls as they try to emotionally distance themselves from the ghostly entity.
Mama is a film with a split personality. On the one hand, it’s a stylishly cool, well filmed, mindlessly creepy scare flick, filled with skin-prickling eeriness and some visceral, slap-in-the-head frights. On the other, it’s a been-there, done-that rip-off of other, better films of the genre, although having the name Guillermo del Toro as “producer” on this thing certainly elevates its status as a contender with the rest of 2013’s genre entries. Mama fills a gaping void of genuine scares, and elicits at least two or three raised-hackles from this jaded viewer, so I guess if you’re after simple, gore-free thrills, Mama’s gonna float your boat. The only real problem with the film is that it comes off as highly derivative (which is a problem most horror flicks have, really) from other, better films in the genre. Muschietti’s direction is elegant and stately, with a grace that belies the very genre he’s working in – Mama’s got style to burn, even if the story feels half-baked and generic.
One of the main problems I have with Mama is that there’s a large amount of genre tropes and plot devices used throughout the film that makes me half-think it’s some lazy screenwriting. The darkened hallways, jittery-guttural clicking and spidery, Exorcism-like movements, as well as spooky bleeding-from-the-walls monster visuals are all cool, but have been done before. This isn’t to denigrate Muschietti’s direction, because even though he’s reusing these kinds of horror elements, he delivers them with vibrancy and energy, but it is what it is, I guess. A spooky wood cabin out in the woods (hah!), a crazy uber-powerful ghost lady intent on capturing the souls of two unwitting girls, and a woman who suddenly finds herself a surrogate mother to a pair of disturbed, deeply affected children, and you have all the ingredients for a superbly filmed scare flick, and were it not for Muschietti’s wonderful camerawork, and sense of pacing throughout, the end result might have been something of a debacle in lesser hands. As it stands, I found the story of Mama a little bit…. well, tedious, is probably the word I’m looking for. The vengeance-fueled ghost intent on taking an innocent soul is a genre trope that has been done to death, and where Mama makes it passably entertaining is with Chastain’s Annabel being almost thrown into the story rather than expecting it. Annabel’s journey of discovery, both of Mama’s secret and of her own feelings for the two girls, is what drives the latter half of the film, and it’s only thanks to Chastain’s commitment that it works at all.
A lot of the scares are old-school jump-at’cha kinda ones, with the ubiquitous ghost creature the primary instigator. Plenty of “appearing in the shadows” boo moments also occur, and the creepy children-moving-like-insects routine is trotted out for the umpteenth time. Yes, it feels old, but Mama’s confident tones more than make it passable in this regard. A screechy, string-infused horror score by Fernando Velasquez is part excellent, part annoying on the Horror Film Soundtrack Scale, with it’s goosebump inducing moments of dread alternating with “something scary is coming!” anticipation, lacking subtlety throughout the more straightforward second half. Mind you, in saying this, Mama does a lot of things right where other lesser genre films might fail. It presents the lead characters as normal people (albeit weirdly normal), people who aren’t prone to idiocy in the face of incredible paranormal events. Even Daniel Kash’s psychologist character, who otherwise acts like a complete moron in trying to find and then fight Mama by himself, isn’t an idiot (he’s a trained psychiatrist, after all), and Lucas’s sister Jean, played with straight-faced acceptance by Jane Moffatt, is hardly the odious relative we are expected to think her – she just wants what’s best for the kids, I guess; Mama’s script isn’t unique or eloquent, nor is it riddled with plot holes (although the third act’s speed-up of plot development might indicate otherwise) other than several exceptionally coincidental events occurring – it feels almost fresh even in the face of plenty of tropes and cliches.
While Jessica Chastain (and to a lesser extent Coster-Waldau) might garner the majority of the critics plaudits for their work here, the film really belongs to the two young girls, particularly Megan Charpentier’s Victoria, the older of the two Desange kids. Without their creepy, adult-level performances, Mama would have sunk like a stone. Charpentier delivers a suitably fragile and tormented child, developing an attachment to Annabel that will mean her rebuttal of Mama’s affections, and it’s around her that a lot of the film’s eventual sympathetic streak revolves. Her relationship with Chastain’s Annabel isn’t as well developed as I’d like, considering the time between the girls’ abandonment and their discovery at the cabin, because it seems that she drops Mama’s affections like a hot rock as soon as Annabel even shows a sign of motherly love, but I guess for a film like this it’s an acceptable convention. Isabelle Nilesse, as the younger Lilly, gets to be the monkey child of the pair, with her limited vocabulary and skitterish, creature-like movements making everyone a little bit uncomfortable, and she does a great job considering the circumstances. Her role isn’t the primary one (and it probably should have been, considering the outcome!) but between her and Charpentier, they anchor the film’s pervading sense of reticent family ties.
One gets the sense that Mama feels a lot like an homage to other genre films, and if there’s a key issue to be stated, it’s probably that. The film delivers a few good scares, plenty of atmospheric visuals that will creep you out nicely, and a typically nonsensical plot that interweaves light-weight character development with nightmarish portent; the story wears out its welcome rather quickly after Mama appears on the scene, really, transitioning from thoroughly creepy Lost Children concept to bog-standard Vengeful Ghost routine. If you enjoy that kind of thing, this film will deliver plenty of thrills and scares, and I guess even if you don’t enjoy a good scare or three, you’ll be thankful it’s not one of those gore-filled bloodbaths so many films seem to want to be. It’s entirely unoriginal, but Mama definitely worth a look.