Directed by Andy Muschietti
Distributed by Universal
If only the new Guillermo del Toro production Mama had been a terrible film, I might’ve been able to indulge in some mean-spirited snark and pattern my entire review around a series of awful “Yo Mama” jokes. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as this creepy and well made (though still somewhat flawed) venture marks a significant improvement over the last “del Toro Presents” joint Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (a rather boring and completely frightless waste of two hours) and stands as one of the better spooky flicks to have emerged from 2013’s winter wasteland.
The film opens with distraught banker Jeffrey (Coster-Waldau) murdering his ex-wife and making off with their two tiny daughters, Victoria and Lilly. After a car wreck sends them hurtling into a forest, Jeffrey seeks refuge with his girls in a creepy cabin that just screams “Keep Away! Haunted!” Seeing no other options available, Jeffrey plans to murder his children and then himself, before a creepy entity that looks like the pissed off love child of Ju-on’s Kayako and that creepy thing at the end of [REC] drops in and makes mincemeat of the poor bastard.
Cut to five years later – Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (also Coster-Waldau), has been bankrupting himself attempting to look for his bro and nieces (finding a vehicle crashed a stone’s throw from a rather large road must’ve been beyond the abilities of the local authorities, it seems). Just as he’s about to find himself penniless, the children are found – filthy and feral after years in the wild, but quite alive. After some dodgy legal maneuvering, opportunistic child psychologist Doctor Dreyfuss (Kash) relocates Lucas and his tattooed punk rocker girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) into a large two-story home, where he can observe Victoria and Lilly even as the enthusiastic Lucas and the none-too-happy Annabel attempt to raise them.
Of course, we discover pretty quickly that the spooky entity in the film’s opening moments has been caring for the children and has followed them back to their new home. When an “accident” befalls Lucas, reluctant wouldn’t-be mom Annabel is forced to look after the girls on her own, even as the strange events in her home force her to consider the possibility that the children’s make believe friend “Mama” may not simply be a figment of their imagination. Creepiness ensues, while two subplots (involving Dreyfuss and the girls’ maternal aunt) add little but exposition and body count fodder to the goings-on. It all culminates with a finale that’s as equally frustrating as it is heartbreaking, sending the movie out on a defiantly strange note.
For all of my disappointment with the film, what with its over-reliance on CG and some unfortunate scripting choices, this writer still found Mama to be an effective film, almost more so as a domestic drama than a fright flick. Watching Chastain’s Annabel evolve from a relatively self-centered brat to the caring lioness in the film’s finale makes for an engaging enough tale, without benefit of the clichéd monster at the film’s heart and the equally generic backstory given to make us empathize with it. And while the film’s many jump scares are telegraphed well in advance, director Muschietti is able to keep the tension running fairly high throughout.
Still, the pacing is the film’s middle act is somewhat leaden, with little momentum driving the tale forward for stretches at a time. There are a handful of deleted scenes featured on the Blu-ray/DVD (featuring nice character beats, especially one for the Dreyfuss character), all of which certainly needed cutting. I only wish the filmmakers hadn’t stopped the trimming with that collection of scenes, as less dead weight in the film’s second act might have livened up the proceedings considerably.
And then, that ending. While I try not to harp on supernatural flicks being less than airtight so far as their logic goes, a climactic sequence involving a fateful plunge ends with a bizarre moment involving…well, I won’t spoil the “surprise” here. I’ll only note that it’s a strange and ultimately unsatisfying choice, one that might’ve been poignant had the creatures in question been set up more thoroughly throughout the film’s preceding ninety minutes. What should’ve tugged at the heartstrings got little more than a “huh?”, at least from this viewer.
So, yeah: slow middle, not-so-new monster, somewhat unsatisfying finale. But please! Don’t let me scare you away from this film entirely, as there’s plenty here to appreciate. As mentioned, the story is pretty good and the tension is palpable throughout. And then there are the performances: Coster-Waldau (of Ole Bornedal’s original Nightwatch and “Game of Thrones”) makes for a likeable lead, at least until the film jettisons his involvement a third of the way in; Kash makes for a dubious, yet still oddly sympathetic character; and as Victoria and Lilly youngsters Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse do a superb job, creating realistic characters that never once veer into cliché. But Mama, especially by its last half, becomes Chastain’s show, and the recent Oscar nominee (for Zero Dark Thirty) does a fine job of carrying it. In the hands of a lesser performer, Annabel might have been an irritating presence in the beginning and a Hallmark heroine for the final half. Fortunately, Muschietti and Chastain keep Annabel believable with a considerable yet not overwrought arc that carries her to the finale.
The film also looks downright gorgeous throughout, with a muted palette and rich blacks keeping the proceedings suitably shadowy – all perfectly reproduced by the Blu-ray’s beautiful transfer. And speaking of the Blu-ray, the film’s creepy sound design and musical score are well represented by the impressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Also featured on the Blu, in addition to the deleted scenes, are a commentary with director/co-writer Muschietti and his sister/co-writer/producer Barbara; a visual effects doc which illuminates the film’s blending of practical effects with CG (which is the only feature here that is exclusive to the Blu-ray); a brief doc on the film’s evolution from short film to feature length fright flick; and the short in question, which boasts an introduction from del Toro and a more effectively frightening villainess than the feature.
Ultimately, while Mama will never be considered the “mother of all ghost flicks”, it’s an enjoyable enough thriller with some great atmosphere and good performances. While you may not want to dive in and buy the flick outright, be sure to at least give it a rental. Extra points if you do so this upcoming Sunday (May 12th) just before a visit to your own mama – it’s the perfect Mother’s Day flick to watch with your horror-loving mom.
3 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5