Mama (2013) Review
Mama, from executive producer Guillermo del Toro and director Andres Muschietti is a ghost story with bits of monster movie that proves that sometimes it’s what you don’t see that is the scariest. It’s a shame they didn’t live by that. Strong performances and a compelling story keep things moving along, but too much up close and personal with a ghost almost hurls this film over the cliff.
Young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Neilsse) are getting ready to start their day when their distraught and ragged father Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) comes barreling into the room and orders them to get their jackets and come with him. “No”, he says, “your mother won’t be taking you to school today”, and he drives off along a frozen mountain road with radio news broadcasts of an investment company partner who shot and killed several in his office, along with his wife, blares on the radio. It doesn’t take long to realize that Victoria and Lilly no longer have a mother, and their father has gone murderously insane.
Driving way too fast for safety on this treacherous and frozen road finally produces the anticipated result when the car goes out of control and down a hillside. All three survive and head out on foot, coming across an abandoned house with a fireplace and walls that seal the place well enough. Now with warmth coming from the living room Jeffrey has time to contemplate his deeds and plan his next moves… and he appears to decide that killing the girls and himself is the right answer… but they are not alone in the house, and the “other inhabitant” doesn’t think the girls should meet their end just yet.
Over the next five years Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) never stops searching for his missing brother and two young nieces, in spite of the fact he is a starving artist with no assets, save his rough yet beautiful rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). When he finds the girls miraculously alive, he takes them in to help them retake their lives… but that “other inhabitant” may have come with them back to civilization.
Mama is an interesting movie for several reasons. First, ultimately this is a ghost story, and ghost stories can be difficult to pull together in a way that captures the attention of moviegoers and hold it through the ending credits. We talk a lot about the “slow burn” films that spend much time on character development and slow but steady build-up of the suspense to get to the grand payoff, and many of the best ghost stories do just that. Mama starts out like it is going to take this tactic too, and is very eerie and disturbing as the drama unfolds. The set-up is great, and the characters all support the effort well, particularly Jessica Chastain who lights up the screen with every frame she appears in. Chastain, by the way, is on quite a roll through the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 with high marks earned for her part in Zero Dark Thirty releasing shortly before the January 18, 2-13 U.S. release of Mama.
The second interesting factor of this film really has to do with a crossroads that director Andres Muschietti must have come to regarding the effects and methods used to portray our villain, “the other inhabitant”. This story was first a short film in 2008, and clearly the short was strong enough to warrant a full budget production with this film, but was it too much budget? Often with ghost stories the scariest and most effective scenes are those where the ghost is seen as a shadow, something moving in the background, and an occasional close shot of a deathly face for impact. What Muschietti chose to do instead was to give us very close and detailed shots of this ghost, with lots of screen time. That technique worked for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but was a bit much for a ghostly film with so much creep factor going on. I, for one, would prefer not to see facial expressions and anguish reminiscent of the cute facial movements of E.T. The Extra Terestrial on my ghosts; just not scary after a while. It doesn’t seem proper that the audience of a horror movie should be completely desensitized to the visage of the scary ghost when the climax finally comes.
Then there is the ending. I didn’t like the ending for about a dozen reasons, most of which will not be revealed here to avoiding ruining the film for those on their way to see it. Aside from the 11 other things about the ending that left me both scratching my head and reeling with pangs of disappointment, there is one that may or may not resonate with other horror freaks: Then what? Sometimes in a film the happenings in the end are such that one can’t help but wonder how in the world the survivors will explain what happened to the police. There’s often a bit of this with any slasher, and certainly in those films that include a paranormal happening that would be difficult if not impossible to explain, but Mama really takes the cake. The sequel to this film will surely be about how the survivors lose in their day in court and spend the rest of their lives in the big house, if not death row. There’s just no explaining this one to the authorities, no matter what kind of spin you put on it.
Mama has an excellent story and some very good performances, along with sufficient pulls on the heartstrings and some good jump scares to even out the building creepiness. If the wheels wouldn’t have slightly fallen off in the last segments, the audience wouldn’t have been so accustomed to the ghost that it was really no big deal, and the survivors wouldn’t have been looking at a date with the electric chair when it’s all said and done, Mama would have been truly fantastic.
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