Monday, January 21, 2013


The PG-13 domestic horror film Mama is a strong feature debut for director Andrés Muschietti: the pacing, tone, and performances are all handled exceptionally well, and the film certainly delivers the uneasy anticipation and scares that the genre promises. In addition, the lead characters are not merely fodder for the monstrous title character; Muschietti co-wrote the script with his sister Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross, and they work against convention in this dark fairy tale almost immediately.

Mama opens with a disturbing but bloodless sequence of a violent mental breakdown in progress, as a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is reported to have killed his coworkers and then we hear the shooting of his estranged wife off-camera. The way in which audio is used is highly effective, instilling a sense of dread for the unknown. The man kidnaps his two young daughters and flees in his car, the camerawork and winter setting reminiscent of The Shining (though in rural Virginia). There’s an accident, then an abandoned cabin, then a gut-wrenching mistake about to be made. Then Mama appears.

Five years later, the man’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) has hired trackers to find his nieces. His girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) is introduced in their apartment checking a pregnancy test, thanking God for the negative result. It’s a little crass and easy, but Chastain guides the characterization quickly, working against both the standard expectations for this style of movie and the maternal qualities she exhibited in her 2011 films The Tree of Life and Take Shelter. A bassist in a rock band, Annabel is committed to her struggling artist boyfriend, but not at all ready or willing to start a family. The trackers of course then find the cabin, in even further squalor, with the girls in a feral state, alone.

After months of somewhat successful rehabilitation in a psychiatric institute, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) face a court battle over their custody. Lucas and Annabel aren’t suitable parents on paper, in terms of income and stability; Jean (Jane Moffat), the aunt of the girls’ mother, presents a more stable environment, though she has not raised children either. The only way the kids are able to stay with Lucas and Annabel is because the psychiatric institute sets them up in a house, with their psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) able to study them frequently. Annabel isn’t exactly on-board with having two abandoned and emotionally scarred kids all of a sudden. Victoria adjusts more readily than Lilly, who still eats on the floor and sleeps under the bed. It is not long before the “Mama” that the children frequently intone makes an appearance, and then the intensity is escalated while the house is taken over.

Mama is played by Javier Botet (with a great deal of assistance from special effects), and his unusual abilities and body language are extremely creepy. The cinematography by Antonio Riestra is simply gorgeous in moments, including some abstract dream sequences, and there’s an incredible continuous shot that moves from an upstairs bedroom, to the living room downstairs, and back to the bedroom upstairs, all while the tension builds and releases and builds again. The camerawork partnered with the crucial editing by Michele Conroy is essential to the many “jump scares” and how Mama is utilized – much like in Jaws, it is often what is unseen that is most effective.

There are some “don’t go in there!” and eye-rolling behaviors by some of the minor characters, typical to the genre, but what makes Mama somewhat unique is how Annabel relates to the children. She points out that it’s not her job to look after them, her “parenting” demeanor is perfunctory, and when she is forced to spend time with them alone, she asks “Am I safe?” Horror films with a child and a female guardian tend to play up the protective mother angle, but Mama resists this. (If I had more knowledge of the genre, I might further comment about maternal “scary” movies such as The Ring and The Others being largely bloodless, compared to the gory patriarchal fare that usually dominates the market, but this is for someone else to explore.) When Annabel eventually does have to truly care for the children, including challenging the meddling of Jean, it’s not portrayed as her becoming maternal so much as it is her being assertive. The ending is also atypical of Hollywood fare, though it is fitting to the characters and tone. At a brisk 100 minutes, Mama is a smart, compelling entry in the fright realm of horror that plays upon expectations.

[Published here.]

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