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Movie Review: Mama (2013)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Daniel Kash, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Jane Moffet
Note: Some spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution.
Mama has a pretty terrific opening; I'll say that much. After the words “Once upon a time...” are written across a black screen, we are plunged into a sequence where a mentally unstable Wall Street financier (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kidnaps his two daughters – three year old Victoria and one year old Lily – after murdering his wife and his two business partners. He drives them to an abandoned cabin in the woods known as Helvetia, where he plans to kill them. He's about to shoot Victoria in the back of the head when...well, let's just say he doesn't get a chance to finish the job. It's such a shocking and chilling sequence that it got me pumped up for the rest of the movie.
Unfortunately, the rest of Mama is quite dreadful. The cast is not to blame, mind you. They work hard in spite of the thin material they've been given. No, the fault lies with the screenplay, written by Neil Cross, and siblings Barbara and Andrés Muschietti, which grows more predictable and absurd as the movie plods on. In ghost stories of this kind, you're supposed to let some logical gaffes slide, but there is not a second of the film that rings true. And the movie relies on some of the hoariest of horror movie clichés, including the old standby It Was Only a Dream (used not once, but twice).
Five years after the opening sequence, the two girls are found, malnourished and scampering on all fours like wild animals, by a search party funded by their struggling artist uncle Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau). With the help of a Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the girls improve their communication skills rather quickly. Lucas wants to take the girls home and raise them with his goth rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), but is opposed by the girls' aunt Jean (Jane Moffet), a character so over-the-top snooty you just know she's going to fall victim to Mama's wrath.
Dr. Dreyfuss agrees to help Lucas get custody over the girls by moving them out of their cramped up apartment and into a nearby two story house, “rent free,” so he can continue to work with them. While Lucas is beyond excited about raising the girls, Annabel has her doubts. She's introduced in the film thanking the Good Lord above that her pregnancy test came back negative. When Lily looks at her and says “Mama,” she retorts, “No, don't call me that.” She's just not ready for motherhood, but is forced to be the girls' sole caregiver when Lucas falls into a coma after an attack by Mama that should have killed him, if not broken his neck.
It seems the being Mama followed the girls from the cabin in the woods to their new home. Initially dismissed as a figment of the girls' imagination, Mama constantly makes her presence known to all via black splotches on walls and ghostly moans in the dead of night. We get to see Mama, a lot, toward the close of the picture, and the special-effects are so hilariously bad that they are bound to induce snicker fits rather than shrieks of fright. If horror movies are only as good as their villains, then Mama is the pits.
It's not just the special-effects that make the title character so ineffective. Like last year's The Woman in Black, the title villain here is borderline incomprehensible. One second she, for some reason, supplies Annabel a dream detailing her tortured backstory, and then later on she tries sucking the soul out of her. She takes care of the children in the woods for the better part of five years, and then tries to jump off a cliff with them in the end, because she did the same thing when she was alive with her newborn baby, and she never knew where her child was after the fact. Or something like that. I don't know.
Even less comprehensible are some of the idiotic choices made by the characters. There is one scene, for instance, where Dr. Dreyfuss drives off to the cabin in the woods where the girls were found, I guess to see if Mama's spirit is really there. Because he goes there in the dead of night and alone, you just know the good doc isn't going to last very long. But that's not even the crazy part. What's even crazier is that when Lucas gets out of his coma, he does the exact same thing.
The acting is good across the board. Jessica Chastain does a good job capturing her character's anxiety and uncertainty, and Coster-Waldau does solid work as Lucas and his less stable brother Jeffrey. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse turn in commendable performances as the two young girls, with the former investing a lot of emotion in her role and the latter effectively looking creepy while munching on moths, paper towels, and her sister's hair. Andrés Muschietti makes his directorial debut here, and he creates one or two admittedly creepy scenes. There is one, single shot scene in particular where Lily engages in a tug of war over her blanket with an off screen opponent. As the scene wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that whoever she's playing with isn't human.
What Muschietti doesn't do is develop his characters into people we can care about. The relationship between Lucas and Annabel is sketchy at best, but their relationship with the girls receives even less attention. There is no one we can become emotionally invested in, which makes the film's climax even less effective than it already is. And can anyone make sense of the ending? One moment in particular that completely baffled me involves two characters exploding into a shower of moths. I'm sure the more astute movie goer could draw some philosophical meaning out of it, but when the movie finally faded to black, I was flabbergasted.
The movie was executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the same man who gave us the cinematic milestone Pan's Labyrinth. This is the second time he's served as executive producer for a bad horror film, the first being 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. At least with that film, you could imagine a better film being made were he the director instead of debut filmmaker Troy Nixen. Given how lousy the script for Mama is, however, not even Orson Welles could have done much to salvage it.
** (out of ****)