Full disclosure: I am a big fan of horror films, even when they are just, “meh.” It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s just a fact. Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on elm Street (original and remake), Jeepers Creepers, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Scream franchise, The Ring, and Halloween are amongst my favorite films ever! You can have your No Country for Old Men and your Eyes Wide Shut, just give me a demonic presence, a knife wielding psychopath, and a limping virgin fighting for her life, and I’ll give you 15 bucks for the 3-D glasses and another 12 for some popcorn and my Milk Duds. That’s why the last few years have been such a bummer. Some genius executive in Hollywood has made horror films duller duller, deciding that all our horror should be rated PG-13, sans blood and pervy sex, and leave a mind-numbing trail of teen corpses. Compounding my lack of interest in the crop of current horror films have been two kick-ass seasons of American Horror Story: Murder House and Asylum, which have both served up my scares and cringes with a healthy dose of R-rated mayhem. After Ryan Murphy served up another 13 hours of rollercoaster terror this season, most 90-minute offerings labeled safe enough for your average jr. high sprout left me cold. But there is hope for us damaged ghouls, a nifty little gem produced by Guillermo del Toro entitled, Mama.
The film directed by Andres Muschietti and based on his short, Mama,’ has thrills and chills aplenty as we follow the story of two wayward waifs and the unfortunate hipsters who volunteer to care for them. Without giving too much away, said waifs are orphaned and alone in the woods and presumed dead by the authorities. After their uncle hires some private investigators to see what happened to the children and his brother, the children are discovered feral, yet alive, and the sensitive and cool artist uncle and his heavily inked and bitchin’ rock band guitarist girlfriend battle for custody of children that only a mother or untamed cat could love. But soon we realize all is not well with the little tikes who don’t seem to be alone. Add a creepy scientist working for a place called “the institute” (never a good thing), a frigid yuppie aunt who wants the tikes for herself, and a suburban house out of The Exorcist, shake well, and you have a potent horror cocktail to savor and enjoy, largely due to the director’s wise choice to only give us glimpses of the titular character and the scampering feral children, who are both scary as shit.
Actors in horror movies are usually trying to break into “real” films, and can be as forgettable as that blood stain you just cleaned out of your rumpus room carpet last night. In this case, Muschietti has recruited some heavy hitters to help bring the chills, a good thing too, since the script’s character development is almost as in-depth as the above synopsis. As both the uncle and dead daddy, Lucas and Nicholas, respectively, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is all smoldering sexiness stored in the lanky bod of your prototypical good guy step-dad. He’s well, um, HOT, and that may be a deliberate choice since his girlfriend is anything but maternal, yet commits to these creepy tikes with neglected orthodontia solely because “Luke really wants this.” After watching these kids for five minutes through an observation window, most rocker chicks would run screaming to the nearest Seagram’s shot, but Annabel, played by the luminescent Jessica Chastain, who dons a Joan-Jett-meets-goth-runway-model persona for the role, commits to doing her best for the tikes. “I didn’t even get the chance to screw them up. They came that way,” she laments to a band mate, as she dumps her rocker aspirations to help care for Thing One and Thing Two. This is made all the more unlikely because when we first meet our heroine, she’s bathed in relief that her pee-stick didn’t turn blue. It is to Chastain’s credit that we ignore the weak plotting here and believe Annabel’s choice. Chastain’s subtle acting of her character’s awkward first steps to mothering and steady gaze as she becomes the lone caretaker, makes us believe the journey this woman embarks on and, more importantly, believe that she would even bother to hop on this ride. Her efforts to do the right thing make us care for these kids and her brushes with the menacing Mama are chilling because she puts so much at stake with each glance and movement. It’s a committed performance from an actress with a history of committed performances. Bravo!
Plot weaknesses are nothing new to horror and, it’s my belief, that good horror embraces a formula or prototype and makes you forget how creaky the rollercoaster is as you climb into your seat and buckle up. My major qualms with this film are the unsympathetic nature of the kids and my personal annoyance with CGI. The kids are so animalistic that it’s hard to care what happens to them because they seem a lost cause. As the oldest girl, Victoria, played effectively by Megan Charpentier, begins to remember her humanity and assimilate, we see why Annabel cares, but her maternal instincts arise far too quickly and seem forced, and a bit too wrapped in traditional cultural lore. One of the strengths of the script is it acknowledged that a kind and intelligent woman would not necessarily be maternal, just because she has a uterus. And yet, one little hug makes her all gushy and mommy-like. It rang false to me in our current culture where more people are opting to be child-free and are comfortable with that choice. Were I presented these two kids and an adorable dachshund (another loose end the film sort of leaves dangling), I’d buy the dog several fetching sweater vests and ship the girls off to a Swiss boarding school, like The Baroness wisely planned in The Sound of Music. Yep, I’m a bad person.
As for CGI, it rarely looks realistic and can distract me quicker than any bad acting or weak script. Do it well and I’m a five year old discovering a new world. Do it badly, and I’m looking at my watch wondering how long it will take for this film to end so I can pee out my 5-dollar slushy. For most of the movie, this film hints at the physical presence of Mama, and this is incredibly effective and appropriately nightmarish. In the final moments, we see too much of her computer-animated visage and the fear factor is weakened as a result. This is compounded when you view the short film and see a far scarier creature created for far less bank. Why would you spend money enhancing a perfectly serviceable image you’ve perfected in the short? It’s a mystery. Still, even with the above mentioned missteps, Mama made me jump and cringe and hope those creepy kids would live to see their adolescence and then go on a slutty double-date and get slashed up by a guy in a hockey mask to entertain me another day. A boy can dream, can’t he? Ultimately, if you like to be scared of what’s standing behind you, Mama is a worthwhile ride, just don’t think too much, cover your eyes for the last five minutes, view Mama’s final assault through entwined fingers, and enjoy!
Mama is now playing at Goodrich Savoy 16 and Carmike Beverly Cinema 18.