“Despite the strong acting, the story eventually dissolves into an all-too-familiar melting pot of horror and fantasy clichés that Tim Burton already capitalized on in an attempt to create a different kind of happy ending. Visually, it all works. Even the score by Fernando Velázquez is quite nice. I thought the Mama design was very effective as a mix of CGI and practical effects, along with being effectively performed. It does create an eerie fairy tale feel that the short never even aspires to.”
Mama, Movie Review
As most of us already know, Guillermo del Toro has his hands pretty full for someone who has not released a film that he has directed in almost five years. Lately, producing for up and coming directors has been his thing. So far, this has ranged from the sublime (The Orphanage) to the ridiculous (the remake of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark). His producing of the feature film debut of Andrés Muschietti’s Mama falls somewhere in between. It is a visually stylish, atmospheric film that relies too heavily on well-worn horror clichés and an underdeveloped story, but is a cut above the normal January fare.
Mama is the feature length expansion of a three-minute short film also directed by Mr. Muschietti. This video made its viral debut a few weeks ago with an added introduction by Mr. Del Toro. After watching it, I found the introduction to be more intriguing than anything he was actually promoting. Somehow, though, it got his attention and this feature is the result.
Since it was only three minutes, there wasn’t much story happening in the short. The feature dashes that problem with a rather confusing opening sequence that decides it would be a good idea to blame everything that occurs on the recession, of all things. We see a father (played by rising Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in Virginia, who has just murdered his wife after losing his job, and presumably his financial resources, basically kidnapping his two daughters Lily and Victoria (same names from the short) and driving erratically on a snow-covered highway in the mountains while we listen to the falling of the economic world on the radio. Eventually, the car drives off the road and plunges into the woods, conveniently right by an isolated house where no one is living. It also seems like some sort of plot, and this is where I could not suspend my disbelief. Naturally, all three take refuge in this house, only to be enveloped by a vengeful….Spirit? Demon? Both? It’s never really explained well enough to determine. Apparently, this apparition can disappear at will, yet cause physical harm to anyone it wants to. It can also possess people when it feels like it, or just kill them, which is seems to prefer. This creature, called “Mama,” (Javier Botet) then kills the father since he’s, you know, about to kill the daughters and raises them as her own on a diet of cherry pits. Where this forest-bound house came from or who previously owned it is never disclosed, but whoever it was sure knew their home furnishings well.
Five years later (b/c apparently that’s how long it takes to accidently stumble upon an isolated house in Virginia, the daughters are discovered, not really aged much and looking like they have been raised by wolves. They are then put under psychiatric care and released to their uncle, Lucas (also played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as if they couldn’t find another actor), and his poseur Goth bassist girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), and moved into a large psychiatric care house. Naturally, Mama decides to tag along. You can probably tell that things go from bad to worse fairly quickly.
I wish I could report some seriously different happenings here. But, alas, most of it is the usual bait and (s)witch. There are your typical red herrings, startling loud sounds, deceitful psychologists who suddenly start believing in the paranormal after their scientific methods fail, Dark Shadows-esque backstories, possessions, murders, fake-outs, antagonistic aunts, and gotcha moments. For me, Antonio Riestra’s cinematography really stood out. Mr. Muschietti has a real visual eye that raises the film above the sub-par script. The pacing really worked for me also as it allowed the story to marinate a little longer than most horror films these days.
The character development was kind of a wash. I didn’t believe that Annabel would suddenly go from being completely apathetic toward these girls to suddenly being a surrogate mother to them after much supernatural awkwardness no matter how well Miss Chastain played her (one must wonder if there isn’t a genre she isn’t set is star in at this point). I also didn’t buy that Lucas would waken from a coma (complete with “Mama” being written repeatedly on the monitor) and know exactly where to find the isolated house and basically wander around for literally days before almost being run into by his girlfriend. There was a serious lack of emotion in the beginning considering that these girls are supposed to be more meaningful to Lucas than even Annabel is. Annabel sticks with the plan way beyond the call of duty, even being forced to leave her successful band, yet seems to grow attached to the children enough to kick the aunt out of the house when she comes to visit? Not even sure where to begin with that one. And why does every horror film nowadays have to involve a coma when it is convenient enough to have one. The use of black moths doesn’t quite sit right with me, not even in a good way. They look creepy enough, but feel out of place in Virginian folklore. The centuries old backstory doesn’t really ring true (or remotely plausible) as well. I liked the child performances of Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse with their wildly different personalities. I was surprised how well a first time feature director like Mr. Muschietti was at getting these performances, even if the little girl in the woods theme has been done to death by Mr. del Toro at this point.
Despite the strong acting, the story eventually dissolves into an all-too-familiar melting pot of horror and fantasy clichés that Tim Burton already capitalized on in an attempt to create a different kind of happy ending. Visually, it all works. Even the score by Fernando Velázquez is quite nice. I thought the Mama design was very effective as a mix of CGI and practical effects, along with being effectively performed. It does create an eerie fairy tale feel that the short never even aspires to. I just wish so many aspects of the story weren’t left hanging by a thread.
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