Wednesday, October 23, 2013


To put it plainly, the horror movie genre is very familiar with a fact that the rest of the world doesn't like to admit: children are scary as shit.  They don't have to be evil, like in The Omen, or a sign of bad tidings, like the girls that are always singing "One, two, Freddy's coming for you."  Even the best kids have moments where their innocence and lack of developed morals come together and make mature adults soil themselves.  Very few filmmakers use that as the core concept of their film, but that is basically what you get in Mama.

Lucas's () twin brother, Jeffrey (also ) went nuts after the 2008 stock market crash, killing several people at work and then returning home to murder his wife.  No one ever saw Jeffrey or his two young daughters after that day, but they were presumed dead.  Lucas was all like, "When you presume, you make a pres out of me and...okay that doesn't work with this one."  He spent every dime he had paying bearded hillbillies (redundant, I know) to search the large, wooded area around Jeffrey's home for some signs of Jeffrey or his kids.  After five long years, the searchers finally found Jeffrey's car, wrecked on the side of a hill, and a dilapidated horror movie cabin nearby.  Inside, the searchers found childish drawings on the wall, along with a disgustingly large pile of cherry pits.  Oh, and they found a two-headed Gollum lookalike that actually turned out to be Victoria () and Lilly ().
"Nasty little Hobbitses" - all of their dialogue, if I had any say in it
Naturally, Lucas was ecstatic to see his nieces again, even if they were feral, and he wanted to care for them.  His hard-rocking girlfriend, Annabel () was less enthused, but went along with Lucas's wishes as best she could.
"Enthusiastically" would probably be overselling it
Since these children are obviously damaged, they initially spend their time in a psychiatric ward, under the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (); Dr. Dreyfuss conducts many interviews and hypnosis therapies with Victoria and begins to learn about Mama.  You see, Mama is who took care of the girls for five years.  Mama protected them and loved them and, sometimes, scared them.  At first, Dr. Dreyfuss believes that "Mama" is a persona that Victoria adapted to act as a mother figure to her and her younger sister, Lilly.  But the more he hears, the less likely that seems to be.  When it comes time for the girls to be released into private custody, Dreyfuss works out a deal that allows the girls to live with Lucas and Annabel in a large suburban home, free of charge --- as long as Dreyfuss continues to have regular access to the girls, so he can learn more about Mama.  Even a doctor can tell the difference between an invisible friend and something...different.  Unfortunately, the good doctor doesn't tell anyone else about his theories, which results in Lucas being attacked by something in the house and falling into a coma.  That leaves Annabel on her own with two miniature people who have more in common with raccoons than her.  And, of course, Mama is there, too...
I know it's the weird figure in the background that is supposed to be scary, but that kid's smile creeps me out

As far as the acting goes in Mama, I am happy to say that the children are pretty good.  Their parts aren't very articulate, so it's not a breakthrough performance for either young actress, but so much of Mama depended on them being creepy and they totally pulled it off.  , being the older sister, had more to do, and she did it well.  She was creepy when she needed to be, she had some good screams, and her character's progression made sense.  was surprisingly good at playing feral.  It would have been easy for a kid her age to be hilariously bad in this role, especially since her character doesn't speak in sentences.  Nélisse not only managed to avoid being bad with her dialogue, she did a great job with her physical acting in this movie.  That is probably a big reason why she was the creepy kid in this movie.
It almost looks like she is pulling a corpse off the bed by the hair
How about the adults, though?  Despite playing a dual role, spends an awful lot of time off-screen.  I thought he was fine, but I don't know if he brought anything special to the role.  was the main character, though, and she got to play the POV character in this movie.  Chastain was fine.  It's hard playing the adult in a movie where the goal is for the kids to stand out, but Chastain kept things fairly subtle.  I got a little annoyed by her "What was that?!?" face always having a gaping mouth, and I thought it was funny how little her character, a professional musician, listened to music, but that's all I can really complain about.
Above: Chastain being startled by strange noises in the room.  They came from your guitar, dummy.
was less impressive as the cold and calculating psychiatrist, if only because he gave the role no depth.  Speaking of one-dimensional characters, was irritating as Aunt Jean; here is a character that loves the children, has a logical right to care for them, and would probably be a better parent than Lucas and Annabel, and what do we get?  A straight up bitch.  Such a missed opportunity.

I have to admit that I was impressed by first-time co-writer and director Andrés MuschiettiMama looked quite good, from just a cinematography standpoint, but Muschietti also used some clever camera tricks.  My personal favorite was a scene shot down a long hallway, allowing the audience to see into the girls' bedroom and another room simultaneously; the reveal at the end of that scene --- which you can see coming a mile away --- was damn well done, and effective, even if it was predictable.  I thought the general story had a good core to it; Muschietti and his brother came up with the story and screenplay, with Luther creator Neil Cross polishing it for an English-speaking audience.  There are some good semi-scary moments, but what I appreciated were the bits of unexpected tension.  Annabel closing the closet door (of EVIL!!!) instead of opening it, Lilly crawling silently around the house, Victoria's scary eyes in the dark --- those are the bits I will remember most about Mama.
Is it against the rules for movie monsters to kill people wearing Misfits shirts?  It should be.
That said, while there are many small moments that were great, the big scares in Mama didn't quite deliver.  Is there suspense?  Sure.  Are there startling moments?  Yes.  But this film doesn't build on them, and the momentum from scene to scene often gets lost.  

There are certainly some holes in the story, but they thankfully don't get too aggravating.  Why would abandoned children eat a cherry that is rolled across the floor to them from an anonymous source?  Because they are kids, and kids do dumb things.  Okay, fine.  Why would a character that wants to avoid pregnancy be worried enough to take a pregnancy test and then celebrate her non-pregnancy?
Who wouldn't want a little angel like this?
Why wouldn't she just be on the pill or have a nuva ring, or use condoms?  Because...musicians are impulsive, short-sighted sluts?  That's the subtext I'm reading.  Why would a psychiatrist let people live in a home for free so he can observe the children, but not have any video surveillance cameras in or around the house?  Because he is shockingly stupid?  None of these are bad enough to ruin the story, but they are annoying.

You might have noticed that I haven't spoken much about the titular monster in Mama yet.  That's because she's kind of terrible.  Mama is actually used very well by the director, when the audience just catches a glimpse of her here and there.  Unfortunately, the last act of the movie gives us a long, hard look at Mama, and it isn't pretty.
It's like "The Scream" came to life.  Only uglier.
Part of the problem with Mama's character is that she is obviously mostly CGI in a movie without a huge budget.  The other digital effects, particularly the weird moth-emitting wall spots, were solid, but Mama was left looking funny looking instead of frightening.  If they make a sequel (and this film was certainly profitable enough to merit one), fixing Mama's character design needs to be a priority.

Mama is a well-made PG-13 haunted house-type movie.  Given the rating and the first-time direction, I'm impressed.  Could it have been better?  Yes --- ratchet up the pacing a bit and/or make Mama look less stupid and you have something special.  But for a slightly younger horror audience, this isn't bad.


  1. I love this movie.
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  2. years late but; fact is that Mama wasn't entirely CGI... just the hair and the movements in some scenes, but I think that that's what cinema has made to us, to being used to see a lot of CGI that that's our defaul thinking.