Thursday, September 26, 2013

Horror Film Review

Mama (2013):  This vengeful spirit flick is "presented" by Guillermo del Toro.  That's code for, "he didn't direct it or write it but he's famous so we'll use his name to fill theater seats."  Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean the film will suck.  It just increases the odds tremendously.  In the case of Mama...well, the house always wins, doesn't it?

White collar professional Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes off the deep end, killing his business partners and then his wife.  He loads his daughters, 3 year-old Victoria and 1 year-old Lily, into his Mercedes and flees.  Icy mountain road, the inevitable crash, the even more inevitable spooky abandoned cabin by a lake, and as psycho daddy is fixin' to shoot Victoria in the back of the head, something in the cabin yanks Jeffrey into the dusty shadows.  The something then takes care of the girls.  And feeds them cherries (?!?).

  Anyway, five years later, Jeffrey's artist brother Lucas (same actor) is still searching.  His Joan Jett-wannbe girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) humors him.  Then they get the call.  The girls have been found.  Alive but feral.  They're cleaned up and put through some tests by psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) who agrees to testify on Lucas' behalf at the custody hearing in exchange for continued access to the girls.  During a hypnosis session, Victoria mentions a woman who ran away from a hospital for sad people and tossed a baby into a river.  And then, of course, she mentions Mama.  Dreyfuss thinks Victoria is first.  A bit of research changes his mind.  Domestic life with the girls is a challenge, especially when weird things start happening.  Lucas ends up in a coma after inhuman hands emerge from a wall and push him down the stairs.  Annabel isn't keen on her new motherly role, especially with freaky Lily scurrying around on all fours like a woodland critter and eating bugs like they're M&Ms. 

Somehow, Jeffrey visits Lucas in his coma, tells him to wake up to save his girls.  He wakes up, leaves the hospital, and heads, not home, but rather the cabin by the lake.   Meanwhile, Jeffrey's sister-in-law comes to visit the girls only to be possessed by Mama who proceeds to kidnap them.  Annabel was unconscious on the floor after a particularly frightening encounter with the ghost and couldn't stop her.  She wakes up, drives to the cabin, hooks up with Lucas, and then the final showdown takes place on the cliff where Mama jumped to her and her baby's death over a century earlier.  It's not exactly super-happy-fun-time. 

The first half of Mama delivers the expected tension and really did keep me on edge and, even more important, interested.  It goes off the rails in spectacular fashion after Mama is fully shown.  She's CGI and looks like something from a Tim Burton movie; that is to say, cartoonish and about as scary as Scooby-Doo.  Which is too bad since there was serious potential here.  The same thing happened in another "Guillermo del Toro Presents" film...Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.  Good film until you see what supposed to be so scary and evil, that is.  It's like this:  if you have the skill to construct an effective horror scenario and build up expectations, you should have no trouble with the pay-off.  In the case of Mama, the pay-off felt more like a failed attempt at bribery. 


Acting:  Focus is on Chastain and she's a joy to watch.  Isabelle Nelisse plays the perpetually feral Lily and really brings the creepy.
Story:  Other reviewers marvel at how fresh and unique Mama is.  These people were hired by the production company.  A vengeful spirit latching on to kids?  Unique?  Right.  About as unique as a remote cabin in the woods.
Direction:  There was some, yes. 
Production Values:  A $15 million budget used well.  It's got a polished look I didn't expect. 
Gore/FX:  It's not a bloody film (it's PG-13 after all), nor is there an ounce of gore.  The CGI Mama is pedestrian at best and the film's Achilles Heel.
Scares:  Oh, it does have those.  One really got me.  I almost jumped.
Ending:  A head-scratcher.  It involves moths.  Moths!
Verdict:  Should you see Mama?  Sadly, I can't recommend it.  It's not a bad movie.  It's a disappointing movie.  If there'd been no hype...ah, who knows.  Expectations are dangerous things.  About as dangerous as attaching your name to a film you didn't write or direct. 

Rating:  2 out of 5

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