SYNOPSIS: Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for five years.... but how alone were they?
REVIEW: Director Andres Muschietti wrote and directed a 2008 short film entitled Mamá. Now, with Guillermo Del Toro as a producer, Muschietti returns with a full length version of the film. The feature film is written by Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross, hoping to scare the souls right out from our chests. Who is the one that the children whisper her name... Mama.
After a horrible opening bell at the stock exchange, a father comes home to his two girls, pulling them away from their play, herding the into his luxury car, and heading out of the city and onto a icy mountain road. When the car spins out of control and slides into a ravine, the three are forced into the woods until they come upon a cabin on a lake. Five years later, the man's brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) still has a team of men searching the area for any sign of his brother or nieces. Without warning, his team finds the cabin and the two little girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier, Resident Evil: Retribution) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse, Whitewash) recovered from the cabin and sent to a hospital under the care of Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Danial Kash, Repo Men). The girls are feral, bruised, and antisocial, but Victoria does recognize her uncle enough to trust him. Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) go to a review board to obtain custody against the girl's aunt Jean Podolski (Jane Moffat, The Recruit), Dr. Dreyfuss persuading the board to give custody to Lucas and Annabel. In a new bigger home provided by Dreyfuss, Lucas, Annie, Victoria, and Lilly struggle to adjust to their new surroundings and to each other. After a strange accident that leaves Annie alone with the girls, stranger things start to happen - strange noises, creepy whispers, surreal dreams, and Lilly constantly calling for Mama. As Annie, Lucas, and Dr. Dreyfuss start to unravel the mystery surrounding the girls' wilderness survival and their attachment to their unseen guardian, their own lives are jeopardized. Who will survive? A new family trying to keep it together? Or the unseen forces trying to tear them apart?
Watching Muschietti direct a big screen adaptation of his written and directed short film is fun. With Guillermo del Toro at his back, Muschietti creates a solid, surreal, and creepy world with strong anchors to reality and tenuous tendrils into the supernatural. Real life children have been found in the woods and jungles who have survived for a long periods alone with nothing but their wits. Or did they? Victoria and Lilly were fortunate to have found a willing phantasm to care for them once they found their way into the snowy woods. The story takes several turns that enforce and reinforce what the girls lost while in the not-so-abandoned cabin on the lake. The way the girls move on all fours is both fascinating and unnerving, reminiscent of a certain crab crawler in a certain devil possession movie from the 1970s. Mama herself, a flowing dark spectre guarding over the children, is where the grasp on reality breaks down. Commonplace in films these days, Mama is preceded by fat, gray moths and molding walls to herald her arrival. What Muschietti does is blend both ends of the spectrum into a tight, strange story that makes your skin crawl at all the right moments.
Mama is very kinetic and visually appealing, with Muschietti keeping with Guillermo del Toro's visual style and storycraft elements. I can see why del Toro wanted to produce this project. Fanciful with roots in reality, the film is a joy to watch at all times. From a moment where Lilly is playing tug-of-war with a blanket with an unseen Victoria, only to see Victoria walking down the other end of the hallway as Lilly gets pulled off her feet as she loses the tug-of-war against... Mama. Very clever camerawork and sequences!
The other del Toro construct popular in his own films, from Pan's Labyrinth and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,revolves a children. The youngest of us are the most vulnerable and open to the wonders of what is behind the veils of what the rest of us can see.
The cast is superior. Jessica Chastain, fresh off her brilliant performance in Zero Dark Thirty, is excellent as a woman out of her element in both the want to raise children and the desire to give up her bohemian life as the bass player in a rock band. It becomes clear early, with a single 10 second sequence, that Annabel is a free spirit avoiding any serious anchors. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, playing both Lucas and his brother Jeffrey in the film, surprised me in his separate performances. Maybe it was the longer brown hair and the beard, but I would not have realized they were the same person had I not known better.
And the little girls? Megan Charpentier as Victoria and Isabelle Nelisse as Lilly are perfect in their performances throughout. From the first feral moments we find them in the cabin to their slow adaptation to a new bright angular world, the world they create is mesmerizing. From the fear of outsiders to the realizing fear of the jealous wrath of Mama comes across in every twitch or stare.
I will not say the story is ultimate perfection. The typical mechanisms are at work in this film, just as they are in other films that have come before it. Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss looks into a rational answer to who Mama really is or was. As with most genre phantasms, there is a death-defying wrong that needs to be righted, keeping an angry and vengeful spirit tethered to the real world. Records about a woman from yesteryear always seems to have murder afoot and institutional walls. Moths, moldy walls, and disfigured and lumbering ghosts seem to have found a new permanent home in the genre.
The 2012 The Possession is the closest and most recent to have the same tone and quality. Fans of the genre are too educated in horror movie viewing to not see plenty of similarities to earlier works. But this flick still works in clever ways.
There have been rumblings about Mama herself (played by Javiar Botet). In life and in death, Mama has strangely set eyes and awkward features. The uninitiated may think this is a result of poor creature design. I disagree. In the story, the girl is in a "hospital for sad people". From photographs in Dr. Dreyfuss's patient files, it is obvious that the young sad girl is suffering from some sort of syndrome. Her look reminds me of the pin head characters in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. Her look is not what we would expect, but I can see how it works. I also like the broken way she moves and the creepy extended arms she possesses - all the better to gather up her newfound wards.
The children whisper for their protector, their Mama. The length of the film is filled with great cut shot scares, classic dark to light lunging and scary moments against the unknown, and an ending that is win/win. I will say that the final act has more of a Darkness Falls feel to it, trading solid filmmaking for a more slick CGI approach, but I enjoyed everything that was put to film in this outing.
It may be January, but Mama will give you enough well crafted scares to satisfy. Like The Possession from last year, Mama is a clever, smarter horror flick that you can get behind. You may want to bring a parent or guardian with you if you think you may be too scared. Maybe you should bring your... Mama.
★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5 | Movie - Rental
Rated: PG-13 Violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.
Release Date: January 18, 2013
Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes
Director: Andres Muschietti
Writers: Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Danial Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffet, Morgan McGarry, David Fox
Chuck Ingersoll is the editor/reviewer for www.HotButterReviews.com.
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