Even If You're Good To "Mama", She Might Not Return The Favor Review

Like the evil that festers inside the walls of an attractive domicile in Andrés Muschietti's debut Mama, the sheen of this technically well-made horror film can't hide the tin-ear dialogue and cliched characters. Muschietti doubles down instead on jump scares and some genuinely impressive camerawork, including a recreation of the short that spooked Guillermo del Toro enough for the talented director to put his name behind the feature. There are definitely elements in both storytelling and visuals that call back to del Toro's proud tradition of mixing the ordinary and the frequently multi-tentacled, fish-eyed, rotting extraordinary. Then again, those visuals are often revealed via telegraphed and essentially exhausting jump scares, a tactic that elicited first nervous and then mischievous laughter from the audience I saw the film with.

Mama opens strong, with a man committing murder and stealing away with his two young daughters. It's an arresting opening, steeped in impressive and frequently disturbing atmosphere, the set design in particular a shining example that suggests horrors lurking underneath the surface. When the girls are left to their own devices in a wintry forest, we cut to five years later. The man's brother Jeff (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tirelessly searches for his two nieces, while his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, largely underused) lives something of a layabout life. With Jeff's money reserves stretched to the limit, there's only so much to be done before the search is called off - after all, five years later, what are the chances?

Miraculously, the girls are found unscathed but devolved into forest creatures subsiding on cherries and perhaps animal flesh. They are placed under the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who offers Jeff and Annabel a choice: move into a house used for patient observation and the girls stay with you. Refuse and they go to Jean (Jane Moffat) the sister of the woman Jeff's brother murdered. Jeff accepts the proposition despite Annabel's unease at playing a mother figure, a role she deems herself unsuited for. Yet when Jeff is put out of commission in a freak accident, Annabel begins to suspect that the girls didn't come back from the forest alone.

Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, playing the older Victoria and the younger Lilly, are faced with a difficult task for child actor - they are meant to suggest unfamiliarity with the civilization while slowly settling into it. It's a challenging piece of acting and the two put forward credible if not exemplary performances. Coster-Waldau is solid, though largely sidelined for the majority of the film. Chastain, here providing the majority of the laughs as the garage band slacker made caretaker, is far too gifted an actress to be handed such an underwritten character. It's not her Norbit, far from it, but releasing this film with the campaign to secure her a Best Actress Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty underway is curious. If anything, it demonstrates Chastain's commitment to any character, even in what increasingly looks like somewhat above bargain bin material.

Where director Muschietti positively shines is in the set up and execution. While the jump scares tire out quickly, the first fleshed out appearance of the film's titular character is memorably distressing, her limbs and body twisted in a peculiar and unforgettable way. Despite the third act being marred by spotty CGI and an unexpected transition from straightforward haunted house antics to horror fantasy, Muschietti builds a lot of momentum by amping up the scares (no doubt helped by the piercingly loud sound mix) and drawing Chastain's Annabel closer and closer to the source of it all.

Mama almost succeeds, in spite of an undercooked screenplay and several lackluster "boo!" scenes. The family drama that develops at the heart of it, especially the contention between two motherly figures, is compelling but is left untapped for the most part. As it speeds toward a surprisingly grim ending, del Toro's influence looms large. All in all, there's a better film waiting to be made with all the same elements that distinguish Mama.

"Mama" opens January 18, 2013 and is rated PG13. Drama, Horror. Directed by Andres Muschietti. Written by Neil Cross, Andres Muschiett, Barbara Muschietti. Starring Daniel Kash, Isabelle Nelisse, Jane Moffat, Javier Botet, Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Nikolaj Coster Waldau .

Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.


New Reviews