Rating: 3 stars out of 5
The early part of the year is generally a lean time for horror movies. For those of you hankering for a good scare, Guillermo Del Toro is here to turn that frown into a loud scream. Toro might only be producing this story, but in Andrés Muschietti, he seems to have unearthed another director capable of scaring the pants off audiences.
The movie starts with two very young girls brought to the woods by their father; Dad, suffering from a psychotic break, has killed his wife. Wrecked with guilt, he becomes more entrenched in his psychosis when he decides to kill his daughters. This is our first encounter of the supernatural figure which we come to know as Mama. She kills the Dad just as he was about to pull the trigger, thereafter taking the children to raise as her own.
Fast forward five years and the girls are found almost by accident by a pair of hikers. They are in such a deplorable condition that the only adjective to describe them would be ‘feral’. Adopted by their loving Uncle Lucas and his less than willing rocker girlfriend Annabel, the story then unfolds about how the children adjust to modern society while dealing with the supernatural Mama who just cannot let go. She follows the children to their new house, with ensuing attempts to exert her influence over the children she considers her own.
Director Andrés Muschietti has adapted this elegant, confident movie from his 2008 short film of the same title. The success of that short film is largely due to its use of long continuous shots to build and heighten the sense of suspense. In the 2013 version of ‘Mama’, this filming technique is once again employed by Muschietti to much success. Many of the film’s pivotal scenes take place in small spaces, and for Muschietti to employ that filming device to great effect speaks to his excellent eye for cinematography. The plot however does not tread any new ground, letting the scares score their own points.
There cannot be enough praise for the acting by the two young leading actors. Megan Charpentier shines in her role of the older sister Victoria. She ably portrays a conflicted child, who very much wants to leave her supernatural guardian for a new life. Knowing this change will not be welcomed by Mama, she tries her best to protect everyone even though realising her efforts are futile. This duality is difficult for most actors to portray, let alone someone as young as Charpentier. The very young Isabelle Nélisse plays Lily, Victoria’s baby sister. Her portrayal of a child who has not had a chance to be socialised to society’s ways is disturbing to say the least. For most of the movie she crawls on all fours and is more feral than child.
This level of acting is unfortunately absent in the adult cast. Jessica Chastain (‘Zero Dark Thirty’), who plays Annabel, the rocker-chick not responsible enough to take care of herself let alone two children, is rather vacant (a disappointing effort for the recent Golden Globes Best Actress winner) . Perhaps that was the acting direction given to her, but for a character who was dealing with a sudden change to her lifestyle she has a rather ho-hum air about it. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s (‘Game of Thrones’) Lucas, the well-meaning uncle and twin brother of the deceased Dad, was unfortunately not seen for most of the movie. He could have had an interesting story but unfortunately, director Muschietti chose to place him off-screen for most of the movie only to suddenly appear for the final act – which has Del Toro written all over it. The anti-establishment maverick has often gone against the grain to deliver a-typical supernatural movies – his fans will not be disappointed here.
Little character development and a plot that is flimsier than wet plywood aside, ‘Mama’ is actually a pretty good horror movie. Don’t go if you recently had a heart by-pass because there are some genuine scares here, but if you’re in need of a bit of a fright to spice up your January, ‘Mama’ is not too bad a place to go looking for it.