A film review by Craig J. Koban May 15, 2013


2013, PG-13, 100 mins.

Jessica Chastain as Annabel  /  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Lucas/Jeffrey  /  Megan Charpentier as Victoria  /  Isabelle Nelisse as Lilly  /  Daniel Kash as Dr. Dreyfuss

Directed by Andy Muschietti  /  Written by Neil Cross

If you're a bit overwhelmed by the recent onslaught of rampant and excessive hack and slash gore that permeates modern horror thrillers – as I certainly am - then MAMA might be right up your alley. 

It’s the brainchild of Andres Muschietti, based on his 2008 short film of the same name that caught the attention of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, a director in his own right that certainly knows a thing or two about supernatural scarefests.  MAMA understands that the finest ghost stories rely less on sadistic, blood curdling mayhem and more on mood, atmosphere, and an evocative sensation of constant dread.  Generally speaking, the film has moments of unnerving greatness and begins on a strong note, but it fizzles towards a climax that’s a bit too high on shoddy CGI work and visual effects overkill, which all but drowns out the tension and intrigue built beforehand. 

It’s too bad, because the film has an obviously talented director at the helm in Muschietti, who knows how to milk the film's dark, macabre, and shadowy cinematography with great relish and delight.  He also has in front of his camera yet another endlessly natural and lived-in performance by multiple Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, hot off of her work in ZERO DARK THIRTY.  If anything, the soulful star makes just about everything that occurs during MAMA – even the aforementioned batty-as-hell conclusion – ring with emotional authenticity, even when semi-ludicrous and eye-rolling plot developments seem to be working against her.  Chastain is the glue that holds the film together and keeps it afloat; another lesser actress and MAMA might have been difficult to endure. 



The film opens on a remarkably immersive note that at least promises an intoxicating story to come.  In a prologue set during the financial collapse of 2008, a desperately unhinged man has just killed his co-workers and wife, which culminates with him kidnapping his one and three-year-old daughters by fleeing into the wilderness.  His car careens out of control on the snow and ice covered roadways, and after it crashes he takes his distraught kids through the woods and to a rundown cabin (when is this ever a good idea in horror films?).  At his wit’s end, the man decides to kill his daughters and then commit suicide, but just as he’s about to do the dastardly deed an ominous figure comes out of the darkness and kills him.  With their father dead, the girls then find themselves oddly attached to their new surrogate parent. 

The two siblings, Victoria and Lilly (in two thankless performances by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse respectively) have been presumed dead, but five years later they are discovered very much alive, but reduced to feral impulses.  The kids’ uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from HEADHUNTERS and GAME OF THRONES) takes them in, mostly out of obvious family love, but also in hopes of discovering what on earth happened to them.  Lucas' girlfriend, a black-haired goth rocker named Annabel (Chastain), is not really a motherly figure, nor does she seem excited to have two children in her home that act more like deranged animals than human beings.  Her worries are confirmed for the worse when it appears that Victoria and Isabelle brought back with them that same supernatural creature from the cabin – that they dub “Mama” – into their new surroundings, which causes great emotional duress for both Annabel and Lucas. 

Again, and to its credit, MAMA generates a thoroughly entrancing sensation of escalating spookiness throughout.  Instead of bombarding all-out gratuitous viciousness at viewers, Muschietti creates moments of tension with menacing cinematography, creepy camera pans, and an invigorating sense of time and place.  Wisely, he keenly understands the value of keeping the presence of Mama – at least throughout the first two-thirds of the film – at a disquieting distance and out of view; we are more frightened in these types of films by the unknown and by what we can’t see.  One set-up is kind of masterful in its simplicity: A bravura camera move starts just outside of the girls’ bedroom as Annabel walks by, blissfully unaware that in the room – and in the same shot – we see one of them play tug-of-war by with the off-camera specter, leaving everything to our frightened imagination.  It’s one of those rare moments of gasping intrigue that so few horror films these days can’t seem to muster. 

Yet, at the same time, all of this precisely reinforces what’s wrong with MAMA, especially during its final act that shows way, way too much of Mama to the point where we find ourselves overly scrutinizing the mediocre effects work that created her more than being truly afraid of her appearance.  When the monster is constantly lurking in dark corners, closets, and out of our view, Mama becomes a truly alarming entity.  Unfortunately, close-up shots of her during the film’s climax leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired.  It’s disappointing when a potentially iconic screen antagonist is built up to such promising heights, only to be marginalized and reduced down to a something that barely looks like it belongs on a lame CGI demo reel.  The unseen Mama is a heart-stopping terror; the seen version…not so much. 

If anything, it’s Muschietti’s sense of eerie style married to Chastain’s fine work that makes MAMA’s less-than-stellar story dynamics and denouement more tolerable.  There are certainly ample BOO-moments and tangible scares to be had here throughout, and even when the film seems to overtly telegraph them I still found myself sheepishly screening it through my agitated fingers.  Perhaps one element that may not get very much credit is the character transformation of Annabel herself, who goes from a wise-ass, doesn't-give-a-shit grunge-infused loaner to a motherly and nurturing figure of care for the traumatized girls.  At the beginning of the film Annabel seems pretty standoffish and not really worthy of our rooting interest, but Chastain is such an adept actor that she more than makes her character’s journey from selfish isolationist to maternal hero a more than credible one. 

Maybe Chastain, in retrospect, is better than the inherent material on display in MAMA.  I dunno.  If it were not for her there really wouldn't be much to either identify with or emotionally engage in during the film.  MAMA is certainly a film that starts sensationally, but regrettably stumbles and runs out of momentum and gas as it progresses to its lackluster finale that perhaps hints a many a direct-to-video sequel to come (let’s pray not).  Muschietti has the goods as a real visual auteur (I want to see more out of him) and Chastain’s assist here hardly needs any more embellishment.  Unfortunately, MAMA is a consummate looking, well acted, and atmospheric idea for a film in search of a better narrative and ending.  At least it knows that scaring viewers is harder to do than grossing them out, which is a moral victory for the film, indeed.

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