JANUARY 15, 2013
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)
Someday, maybe for a Collins Crypt article, I'll put together a list of all the modern horror movies that star an acclaimed actress who usually doesn't do these sort of movies, usually right after winning a big award or nomination. Halle Berry in Gothika, Renee Zellweger for Case 39, etc... it's pretty common, and now it's Jessica Chastain's turn with Mama, coming out a few days after her 2nd Oscar nomination (and a Golden Globe win).
Luckily she fares better than her peers; this is a pretty solid supernatural chiller, with a number of great little creep out moments and a couple of solid jump scares to boot. The plot of the film concerns a pair of feral children who are sent to live with their uncle and his girlfriend (Chastain), and the title refers to their ghostly guardian that seemingly kept them alive in the woods until they were found (even the car they were in was never discovered, somehow - it couldn't have gone too far off the road or else they would have been killed, right?). Thankfully, the movie doesn't waste any time letting us know that Mama is real, and the movie's best scares involve our realization that she is closer than we originally thought. For example, you see the younger sister playing tug of war with a blanket, with her opponent out of frame. You're supposed to think it's her older sister, but then the other girl comes out of a room down the hall on the other side of the frame. There are a couple of these, and even when I was a bit ahead of the reveal, it didn't make them any less unnerving and delightfully creepy each time.
It's also a decent enough tale, and Guillermo Del Toro's fingerprints are evident throughout - Mama's a protective monster, a child's imagination is more powerful than we give them credit for, etc. The screenplay gets a bit clunky, however - there are THREE scenes of characters driving along a lonely road looking at a map, trying to find the cabin where the girls lived for five years, and one character's trip to a hospital has some very wonky timing built into it (they're practically dead but seemingly get out a week later). There are also odd bits of character that seem left over from earlier drafts, like the fact that the uncle and the girl's father are twin brothers - it has no payoff at all. It's also unclear why their father was driving out to the middle of nowhere in the first place - we learn (sort of) that he took a hit in the big stock crash of 2008, but also that he killed a coworker at the office and the wife at the home - why kidnap the girls when he planned to kill them as well?
But it all still works, thanks to Chastain's enjoyable turn as the punked out and unwilling mother figure (when we first meet her she is celebrating that a pregnancy test has turned up negative). Her wonderful red hair is replaced with black dye and a pixie cut, and her wardrobe consists exclusively of band T-shirts - she's next to unrecognizable, and kudos to her for going all out with the design (tattoos, too!). The girls are also quite good; one of them is almost completely feral (the other was old enough to speak at the time of the accident, so she retains basic social skills) and thus spends most of her time crawling on all fours, eating bugs and hair, etc - it's a pretty great showcase for the young actress.
As for Mama herself... SIGH. It's a great design, but egads, the plastic-y CGIness of its execution really drove me up a wall. Obviously a human being can't turn into a pile of hair and smoke and slide along the floor, but why does she have to be CGI in every goddamn shot? There are at least 3 scares that probably would have worked like gangbusters if she wasn't resembling something I was supposed to shoot in an early PS2 game. It's especially troubling when it's a PG-13 horror and thus not particularly violent or gruesome - the ONE thing bringing in the horror element should be better looking than this. I suspect a lot of people will compare it to early/mid 00s CGI-fests like Darkness Falls and The Grudge, and it's a shame that Del Toro couldn't have "executive produced" some of his Spectral Motion guys into the mix - those guys can work wonders with the medium, and the movie deserved a better looking monster.
Back to the rating, I'm actually kind of surprised it got away with a PG-13, being that it's pretty intense (the MPAA has given Rs to other films for similar "too scary!" reasons, including fellow Del Toro production Don't Be Afraid of the Dark) and even has an F-bomb working against them. Plus (SPOILER!!!) the ending isn't a completely happy one, which would usually be another thing to tip the scales into R territory. Speaking of which, I laud the filmmakers for not chickening out - there's a VERY easy way of keeping things happy (it involves a branch) but they don't do it - I was legitimately surprised and impressed that they stuck to their guns.
With TCM3D turning out such a mess (an enjoyable one, to be fair) and Haunted House being atrocious (and I don't have too much hope for Hansel & Gretel), Mama is the best bet for genre fans right now. It's the only one to take the genre seriously, for starters, and while imperfect to be sure, defies enough expectations for a "PG-13 horror" (and a Jessica Chastain movie!) to warrant my respect. Great score, too!
What say you?