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Mama (2013)

January 20, 2013



written by: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti

produced by: J. Miles Dale and Barbara Muschietti

directed by: Andrés Muschietti

rating: PG-13 (for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements)

runtime: 100 min.

U.S. release date: January 18, 2013


Any involvement Guillermo del Toro has in a movie captures my curiosity, but history has taught me to take a closer look though and find out exactly what part he has in a new release. Although he’s written (“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”) and produced (“The Orphanage” and “King Fu Panda 2”) a variety of films, I’ve learned to become a little hesitant when it comes to new horror films he hasn’t directed after the disappointing “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” in 2010. “Mama” has a similar gothic fairy tale vibe to it and is quite atmospheric while providing more legitimate (and creative) scares. The film also boasts a more talented female protagonist, but still short changes the male characters, like in “Don’t Be Afraid”. While there are some glaring flaws here, it’s still nice to see a skillfully made horror film that isn’t a remake, a reboot, a prequel or a sequel.

After an exhausting five-year search, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has finally found his missing young nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who’ve been seemingly living by themselves in an old abandoned cabin in the woods (that bears a sign that says “Helvita”, for some reason). Their father, Lucas’ brother, had taken them there after he committed a mysterious triple murder. The girls appear feral and behave like little savages, requiring intense examination by Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash, resembling Tony Shalhoub) a psychiatrist who learns of the bizarre devotion the girls have to an imaginary person they’ve named Mama. It seems logical that after being holed up along together for five years, the two sisters would’ve created a companion to be with.




Their Uncle Lucas works out a deal which will allow the girls to come live with him, much to the disapproval of their Aunt Jean (Jean Moffat), from their mother’s side. His girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) isn’t too thrilled either. She’s been reassured each time her pregnancy tests have come up negative and has been quite content with the life her and her artist boyfriend have. Her time playing bass in her punk rock band now must be put aside after this big changes. Motivated by her devotion to Lucas, Annabel decides to suppress her anti-maternal disposition and help care for these needy (and freaky) girls, who she learns need more monitoring than even she can handle.

Things get even more complicated when Lucas is hospitalized after a mysterious accident at home. With the kids to herself, Annabel begins to realize that there could be a malevolent (yet possibly maternal) presence that has followed the girls to their new home. She discovers that Dr. Dreyfuss has been doing some supernatural investigating of his own related to that cabin, which leads to Annabel digging up information of her own as the girls’ behavior gets weirder and activities in the house gets increasingly more frightening.

“Mama” is the feature-length version of a 2008 Spanish-language short of the same name by siblings Andrés and Barbara Muschietti. del Toro saw their short and approached them about a feature. Having seen the short, I can see why. (In some ways, it reminded me what trailers should be like). It’s well-made, creepy and most importantly, it made me want to know more about these girls and what/who they’re running away from.

Is Mama a spirit, a ghost or truly some kind of imaginary being the girls made up? I won’t tell, but I will say that she is gradually exposed to the audience in a refreshingly clever “less is more” approach. Usually in a horror movie, the audience is more ‘in the know’ than the characters experiencing the strange happenings in their environment. With “Mama” both the viewers and the girls know exactly what’s going on with Mama, in fact, the girls know even more. This leaves out the adults in the story which is typical of many horror films that feature children. Having the children and audience know generally more than the adults also plays into the fairy tale aspect of the story.




The acting in “Mama” is a step above most modern horror films that see a major release in January. It’s unclear when exactly in her recent rising stardom Chastain made this movie, but it definitely feels like the goal was to have the majority of the movie revolve around her Annabel character and the two young actresses, Charpentier and Nelisse. It also makes sense, since all three of them are great. As someone who’s been closely following Chastain’s career path, it’s cool to see her take a stab at horror, exchanging her flowing auburn hair for a short black rocker do. It also helps that she’s given a character that is atypical for this genre, in that she has an arc to work with. Although Annabel’s motivation for turning into a protective caregiver for the girls may seem a little flimsy, it’s still there and Chastain is a convincing enough actor to have us see why Annabel struggles to do a total turnaround.

The same cannot be said for the men in the movie, something I’m fine with. There have typically been more heroines in horror films (the “Scream” and “Halloween” movies) than heroes. Coster-Waldau is disappointingly one-note as the fun uncle who’s also annoyingly clueless to his girlfriend’s challenges in taking care of these troubled girls. It also doesn’t help that during the last hour of the film, this character makes some uncharacteristic decisions that just serve to lead us to a climax back at the cabin. While that slightly unsteady conclusion is quite creative, showcasing some nifty digital effects, arriving there seems unsure and choppy. That could be due to either the screenplay or the editing, or both, but I would still say there is enough here to appreciate.

On that note, I found myself also appreciated the film’s opening and closing artistic credit sequences which reminded me of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. Both films used these sequences like a beginning and end of an old storybook. Also worthy of mention is the score by Fernando Velázquez (“The Impossible” and “The Orphanage”), who seems to be the go-to guy for Spanish horror films. He uses ominous strings and tinkling pianos to complement the story’s human and supernatural characters, as well as an Elfman-esque chorus that repeats throughout.

“Mama” incorporates a good deal of visual imagination with a tragic urban legend, whereas most horror movies would just go for gore or find delight in a high body count. Judging by how hooked I was (for the most part) and by the reaction of the audience around me (audible chuckles and shrieks), “Mama” could easily be recommended for those looking for something more intriguing and engrossing from their horror movie experience.








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