Monday, January 28, 2013


There's a square elegance to Mama, Andy Muschietti's minor spooks in the night horror show which he adapted from his 2008 short film, as well as a pleasing, albeit highly derivative aura from this less is more mystery.  And while the story-- essentially a bargain basement pillaging of sharper films-- putters out into banality, there's a nicely calibrated tickle of scares and twitches that teases through the first two-thirds of the film.  Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabele Nélisse) are two young girls with a horrific backstory-- their father, on the heels of financial collapse has a breakdown, goes on a killing spree and kidnaps his young children, holding them in a creepy woodsy cabin until his life is taken.  The two girls grow feral-- raised, seemingly by a ghostly guardian, referred to as "Mama."  Mama was produced by Guillermo del Toro, and while this film is slight in regards to the his modern suspense track-- mastered by the classier Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone-- it makes sense that del Toro would back Muschietti's less is more approach, marked with its uniquely designed villain.  It's a shame, then that "Mama." as a villain is one that sadly loses its allure as the tease wears on.  As a result, Mama, the film suffers the same fate.

The story begins introducing Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) fives years after the children-- Lucas' nieces have disappeared.  Annabel and Lucas are a boho punk couple-- she, first introduced relieved at the negative results of a pregnancy test, is in a rock band, he is an artist, tormented himself in the tragic events of that past-- he continues to search for his family.  Naturally, to the duress of Annabel, the girls are found-- wild and unresponsive-- and the movie charts the makings of its dysfunctional family.  The mystery-- and the greatest moments of Mama-- belong in that tease that "Mama,"-- an eternally jealous, unstable thing seems to have followed them.  The film asserts typical bumps in the night stabs of suspense, most of which are quite liberally stolen from superior films-- but they mostly work, as Muschietti masters a polished and stately look matched with a nicely shock-proof sound design.

There's an early sequence of nicely bent mystery and playfulness-- one that feels like the work of a young Spielberg-- in an elongated shot of happy Lilly tugging and coyly playing with "Mama." The trick is we only see one side of the shot, but it invites the audience to suggest that "Mama" is a villain of terror and humanity-- a quirky quality that gives the film its slightest uptick.  It certainly also helps to have an actress like Chastain front and center, who in a black punkette wig and fake tats still manages to finesse soul and poise in her first for-the-pay junky movie.  She bridges further humanity and imbues Annabel with a tangible central conflict in a character lacking maternal nature thrust into this scary new role-- there's a slight metaphor that the film wants to hit home.

I do wish Mama had a more satisfying conclusion-- the film is better as a tease than as a reveal.  Yet even with a premise, one that's just as preposterous as say, Ringu or The Others, that elicits enough gentle stabs at the chest, it's still an unfortunate thriller that's all dressed up with no place to go.  C+   

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