Movie Review ~ Mama

mama

The Facts:

Synopsis: Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years…. but how alone were they?

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nellsse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  When it comes to horror films, I find that I’m pretty forgiving.  I’ll sidle up to a cheesy direct to video scare flick and happily pass the chainsaw-lovin’ night away just as easily as I’ll plunk down my money for the latest sequel to whatever is the current popular horror trend.  All I ask is that the people behind the scares have their hearts in the right place and can provide a few decent spook-outs along the way. 

With Mama, the latest production from Spanish filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, what we have is a strong creepshow that bursts out of the gate early on and maintains a strong hold over its audience for about 2/3 of its 100 minutes.  It’s the final third that threatens to squander the good will that director Andy Muschietti has built up but thankfully even that doesn’t become a deal breaker.

What I’ve come to appreciate about del Toro’s productions (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) is a commanding sense of atmosphere that trumps trivial plot developments.  Even more than that, Spanish horror films in general seem less interested in producing franchise funding killers than it does about providing its audience a entertaining and chilling ride (see Julia’s Eyes, Tesis, The Uninvited Guest).   

The brother and sister team of Andy and Barbara Muschietti first came to the attention of del Toro when their short film of Mama was released in 2008.  Less than three minutes long, the short managed to elicit a more solid scare than countless Hollywood films.  Check it out here to see what I mean.  The concept intrigued del Toro enough to come on board as producer of a feature length version…and this 2013 film is the result.

Even with a relatively small budget, the film looks incredible with fine attention to detail and strong cinematography by Antonio Riestra.  There’s a tendency for these kinds of horror films to use dark corners as easy scares but there seems to be a pointed effort to avoid such trappings.  On several occasions you think a character is going to venture into a spot we know they shouldn’t…only to be the wiser person like we hope they would be.   

Muschietti expands on his short film with engaging characters and strong performances from a game cast.  Even though I knew the lead was played by Chastain (who scored a nice coup recently by having Mama open at #1 at the box office followed by her Oscar nominated work in Zero Dark Thirty taking the #2 spot) the actress is virtually unrecognizable with her famous flame locks tucked under a black mop of a haircut.  The actress also physically transforms herself into something quite different than we’ve seen her do before.  She’s an intelligent heroine for most of the film and believably freaked out when scary things start to occur when the nieces of her boyfriend (Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones and Headhunters) turn up after living in the woods for five years. 

The girls are played remarkably by two young actresses that get pushed to the brink both physically and emotionally.  I sometimes bristle at child actors who wear their craft on their sleeve but both Charpentier and Nellsse are chameleons…huge assets to the success of the film.  Supporting players Kash and Moffat are slight oddities but there’s something sorta old school about the way they sink their teeth into their roles.

When the scares begin (and they begin early) they are achieved via fairly simple methods that don’t always come with the aid of a large music jolt or random cat thrown into frame.  What the Muschietti’s instead create are terrors springing from things slightly off screen or that come into focus at the right moment.  More than a few times the camera lingers just long enough on a slow burn scare to send a chill down your spine.

The problem with the film is that the more that the secret behind the ghostly apparition Mama is uncovered, the less involving the film becomes.  I say involving because it’s not for lack of interest that the final twenty minutes sputters…it’s just that the filmmakers seemingly reached their max of creativity and settle for standard conventions to get the characters where they need to be for an admittedly unconventional (but welcome) ending. 

Those final twenty minutes should not deter you from visiting Mama in the theater, though.  It’s a handsomely made, well assembled horror that isn’t dumbed down for maximum consumption by the masses.  With a boatload of spine-tingles to be had it’s a strong scare fest that just misses the mark by a few feet.

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