Tuesday, January 22, 2013


It may mark me as a bad person to have even thought of this, but you've got to admit there's some truth in it: Given that this movie is about two practically-feral little girls taken from the woods and placed in a suburban home, it's continually surprising whenever the family's dachshund pops up safe and sound after last being seen with the kids. Heck, every time a scene with the dog ended, I'd check my watch, thinking this was the moment when the kids kill that wiener dog and eat it.

Which isn't to say I was disappointed when "Hansel" showed up later - who the heck wants to see that happen to a cute dog? - as much as I was disappointed that the movie wasn't going in the direction of creepy kids rather than ghosts. After all, kids who might be damaged by horrible trauma is disturbing; ghosts aren't quite in the same ballpark, especially since movies like Mama tend to make the rules up as they go along.

I spent some time thinking about how I approach horror movies and tweeting it; it's something I started thinking about when reviewing Buddy Giovinazzo's A Night of Nightmares at Fantasia this summer, wondering off-hand whether it's better for horror movies to have a consistent mythology or to embrace randomness. I tend to favor the first; I'm a right-brained person and I tend to feel like suspense comes from knowing what the options are, or at least thinking you do until the writer comes up with something that fits but the audience hadn't considered, for the characters' good or ill. I understand, though, that sometimes sheer randomness and unfairness is much scarier, and besides, if you cared about the mechanics of it all, you'd be watching science fiction rather than supernatural horror, right?

I think the happy medium for telling a good horror tale comes down to making sure that everything is based on a solid emotion, and the supernatural elements are that physically manifesting. So randomness works if the movie is based upon the fear of the unknown, but that's not really what's going on here. I figure every paranormal thing in Mama should be the result of a twisted maternal instinct, and I think the movie mostly works when that's what's going on. It's when other stuff happens of necessity - possessions, attempting to lure kids off a cliff, etc. - that things seem off, and not in a scary way. In some ways, it becomes less scary because these particular situations don't have the emotional backing to it and the audience can see the writer's hand. A lot of the last act of Mama has the title entity doing things not because they're an extension of its central urge, but because they are things that happen in horror movies. Why does Mama touching Annabel and Lucas slow them down and apparently drain their life force? Just because. The movie needs them to be rendered mostly helpless, and people have seen and accepted this happening before, but it doesn't feel earned, because it's not a part of what this ghost is about.

At least, that's the way I see it. Of course, it may be a fool's errand to try and break what makes horror work like this, but I think that even when there aren't specific rules to the game, there are forces at play, and knowing how to use them makes a horror story more effective.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2013 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, digital)

Did I miss some sort of event where moths became a primal human fear? They've been popping up in horror movies more and more lately, apparently as something creepier than a nuisance, so I guess they must scare someone. Granted, moths aren't the only part of Mama's mythology and story that seem random, but at least a fair amount of the rest seems to come from somewhere. Not all of it, though, and that's what makes Mama less than it could be.

It starts when an unhinged man takes his very young daughters and heads out of town, only to... Well, anyway, five years later, just as the man's brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is running out of money to continue searching for his missing family, the now-eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and six-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are found, practically feral. This is not the sort of instant family Lucas's musician girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) was looking for, and the girls' aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) is seeking custody, but the scientist helping to re-acclimate them (Daniel Kash) offers them the use of a house if he can continue studying them - although he soon becomes convinced that the "Mama" whom Victoria says helped them survive might be more than an imaginary friend.

Andrés Muschietti directs and co-writes the script with Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross, and while the main character arc he's basing the movie on isn't exactly original - Annabel is extremely pleased when a pregnancy test comes up negative at the start, so of course she'll have to assume responsibility for these kids! - it's something that speaks to enough people to work. Having up-and-comer Jessica Chastain (who, after Zero Dark Thirty, can probably be said to have up-and-arrived) is likely a huge help; she and Muschetti make Annabel unprepared and a little immature without making her ever come off as a terrible person. They even hit the right "unconventional, improvising single parent" notes without veering into sitcom territory.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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