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mama

For the majority of its run-time, writer-director Andres Muschietti’s Mama (2013) is a moody, atmospheric and fairly slick little chiller that handily recalls such recent films as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) and The Woman in Black (2012). Relying more on suspense and fantastic visuals than creative bloodshed or mass chaos, there’s something decidedly old-fashioned, yet intensely endearing, about the film’s rather modest aims. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, for the most part, but it’s an incredibly easy film to get along with.

At the climax, however, Muschietti tries something a little bold and stretches for a pretty emotional, almost melodramatic, finale. While this tactic could have resulted in something with all the consistency of sodden cardboard, it actually ends up working spectacularly well, imbuing the film with a warm, authentically emotional and subtly powerful finale. If the final moments can color our ultimate impression of a film (how many otherwise quality movies have been all but ruined by terrible endings?), then Mama’s finale helps boost the movie up into a slightly loftier collection of peers.

Muschietti’s feature-length debut is actually an expansion of his earlier short (also called Mama), which garnered quite a bit of attention, particularly from genre superhero Guillermo del Toro. Suitably impressed with Muschietti’s ability to combine atmospheric chills, creepy visuals and genuine emotional impact, del Toro jumped on as executive producer, leading to the full-length expansion that we’re currently discussing. There’s always an inherent danger to expanding a short into a feature: one merely has to look at the vast majority of SNL “features” to fully see how difficult it can be to stretch 5 minutes of material across 90 minutes of dead air. In this case, however, Muschietti has succeeded in expanding out his original idea without making the whole exercise seem unnecessary and academic.

Beginning with a haltingly handwritten “Once upon a time…” scrawled in white over a black screen, Mama has all of the nightmare unreality and sense of fantasy of the best fairy tales. We follow an obviously distraught man as he packs up his two young daughters (leaving their pet dog behind, which strikes a subtly ominous tone from the get-go) and races out for an isolated cabin in the woods. His behavior is erratic and frightening and there’s nothing about this that seems to spell a happy (or long) life for either young girl. Once at the cabin, however, the father is attacked and dragged off by some kind of unseen something, leaving his daughters on their own in the middle of nowhere.

Jumping ahead five years, we learn that the girls’ uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), has been looking for them ever since, despite the nagging notion that five years is an awful long time for a couple of young kids to be missing. As luck would have it, Lucas’ friend, Burnsie (David Fox), manages to stumble into the hidden cabin in the woods and finds the young girls alive and well, if filthy and seemingly feral. With the aid of his punk-rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and the kindly Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), Lucas attempts to reintegrate the girls back into the civilized world.

The girls, however, are acting a bit odd, to say the very least. For one thing, they won’t stop talking about the mysterious “Mama” that (supposedly) cared for them in the cabin for the past five years. Burnsie and Lucas find no sign of anyone, however, leading them to believe that the girls have retreated into their imaginations in order to deal with the trauma of their father’s actions. Even more unnerving, however, are the quiet little conversations that Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) appear to have with no one in particular. As these behaviors continue, Lucas and Annabel begin to feel the influence of a powerful, potentially malevolent force.

When Lucas is inexplicably shoved down the stairs by an unseen force, Annabel is forced to care for the kids on her own, while her boyfriend lies unconscious in the hospital. Despite her steadfast refusal to devote herself to kids or “settling down,” Annabel comes to care for Victoria and Lilly, vowing to protect them at all costs. Something else feels protective towards the children, however, something primal, evil and relentless. It would seem that someone else was looking after the girls, after all…and Mama has no intention of letting her “babies” go without one helluva fight.

Similar to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Woman in Black, Mama puts atmosphere before action and setpieces, which tends to give the whole affair a more muted, subtle feel. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t feature more “modern” scare moments (ie: the “screeching jump-scare sound of death”) but it is to say that these moments are easily the film’s weakest. When allowed to spool out slow and creepy, however, Mama proves to be a real winner. There one scene, in particular, which showcases the film’s aesthetic to great effect: as Annabel and Victoria play in one room, Lilly plays with an unseen Mama in the other. The shot is devised as a “natural” split screen, with the door frame dividing the screen in half. It’s a cleverly staged moment, to be sure, but it’s also a fantastically effective one: I’m willing to wager that more than one viewer will experience a bit of the ol’ goose-flesh during that particular moment.

As mentioned earlier, the film is aided considerably by a nicely realized, very emotional finale. Without giving anything way, suffice to say that Muschietti manages to temper the character of Mama with enough melancholy to put her evil into a different perspective, allowing for a climax that’s equal parts sad, lovely and very satisfying. There’s nothing especially upbeat about Mama but it also refuses to traffic in easy “sorrow-porn,” either.

Craftwise, the film has a consistently polished look that works quite nicely, especially during the aforementioned finale. The special effects scenes, while obviously CGI, are fairly well-integrated into the film, allowing everything to feel a bit more organic than in the similar Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (which often felt perilously close to slipping into CGI-silliness). The acting is good, although I must admit to being less than impressed with Chastain’s performance: her character vacillates between whiny and ridiculously self-assured and there were plenty of moments where I found myself unable to fully invest in her character. By contrast, Charpentier and Nelisse are rather amazing as the young girls: child actors can be notoriously hit-and-miss but there’s nothing about either one of their performances that took me out of the film, especially once things start to ramp up in the final third.

While there’s nothing especially gritty about Mama, it stands as an exceptionally well-made, effective and moving bit of fairy-tale influenced horror. From the outstanding opening credit sequence (creepy kids’ drawings that tell the film’s story in shorthand) to the knockout finale, Mama is a consistent pleasure. It may not be the most original film in the world (astute viewers should probably be able to get the general drift by at least the midpoint of the film, if not sooner) but it’s also the furthest thing from anonymous dreck as one can get. If you’re a fan of slicker, more commercial fare (the movie is rated PG-13 which, for the most part, means absolutely nothing nowadays), you could definitely do a whole lot worse than pulling yourself up to Mama’s table.

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