Don't mess with this Mama

On January 24, 2013

  • Mama, starring Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, shatters through the generic child-infused horror flick and will surely scare audieces. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Have the main characters of Mama never been introduced to the horror genre? Nothing good can ever, ever stem from adopting two satanic-looking orphans. There are too many possessed-child films for anyone to make that mistake. Does The Exorcist or Orphan flick any switches?

But even with all of its blatant conventionalism, Mama is pretty fun. After countless years with countless formulaic horror films, audiences can still be stimulated from shifty shadows followed by a murky ambiance. Mama shamelessly shrugs off its overplayed genre and supplies a decent enough thrill ride.

After the first handful of shots, viewers should effortlessly guess where the film is headed; everything patently suggests a horror movie is about to happen. Two girls - Victoria (Megan Charpentier, Resident Evil: Retribution) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse, Whitewash) - are piled into a car by their estranged father, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), who claims their mother has been shot to death - never a good sign. He leads his daughters to an isolated cabin reminiscent of the one in The Evil Dead - also not a good sign. As expected, the father's plans are disrupted.

Flash forward five years - Jeffrey's brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), remains hopeful and continues to send search teams to recover his lost nieces. One team finally stumbles upon the creepy cabin to find the girls slathered in mud, crawling on all fours and speaking in strange tongues. That they survived alone for five years is doubtful, but the setup is convincing enough to sustain disbelief.

Lucas instinctively adopts his nieces, much to the disapproval of his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty). Chastain continues to prove herself as one of the most versatile modern actresses, wearing a black wig and tattoo sleeve and talks in a don't-give-a-damn manner. Annabel isn't a fitting guardian and knows it, providingan appealing slant to the film.

Soon following the girls' arrival, Lucas and Annabel's home partakes in the usual horror-movie-house activities: mysterious humming, shifting shadows and levitating objects. Anybody with morals would pack their gear and abandon ship, but that's against horror ethics.

Instead, Lucas and Annabel are terrorized by a gothic spirit referred to as Mama, who mostly isn't shown until near the end. She's accomplished by dressing actor Javier Botet ([RECGénesis) with convincing CGI and is one of the creepiest horror villains of recent memory.

Mama was helmed by freshmen director Andrés Muschiettiand executive-produced by horror-master Guillermo del Toro (Rise of the Guardians), who both proved that conscious filmmaking could make any story work, no matter how generic the genre.

Del Toro evokes his usual dark tones to plant the film somewhat into realism. The characters are all concrete and fighting for something, rather than being random plug-ins from off the assembly line.

The most inspiring performances come from Charpentier and Nélisse as the young sisters, who come from the apparently endless list of great child actors. Both are solid in conveying possession at an unreasonably young age. Chastain is flawless, as always, and Coster-Waldau never allows himself to be upstaged by the leading actresses.

Director Muschietti also utilizes great pacing throughout the event, taking time to setup the surroundings so the audience can watch from a distance. He uses a series of long-takes, one of the most effective shots in cinema, which follow the characters around the whole house until they're attacked or spooked. There's also a great dual-framed shot in a hallway the captures Annabel doing laundry on one side and Lilly playing with Mama on the other.

Muschietti and del Toro play with the film's suspense like a piano, forcing the audience to want more and more. Mama isn't as great as last year's The Possession or Sinister, but fans of those films will have a field day here.

The horror genre has been diminishing for years, but every once in a while, it comes along and surprises everybody. This is one of them.



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