A starry cast and imaginative visuals lift a familiar horror tale. Here's Ron's review of the atmospheric horror, Mama...
Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is a successful financial bigwig of some sort, with a wife and two lovely girls. Everything seems to be going well in his life - at least judging by his awesome house - but one day he just randomly snaps. He shoots two co-workers, then he drives home, murders his wife, and absconds with his daughters who are too young to know any better. They suffer a crash on an icy mountain road, slink through the forest, and find a lovely, filthy abandoned cabin. Or at least they think it's abandoned.
Five years later, Lucas's twin brother Jeffrey (also Coster-Waldau) has spent his entire savings looking for his lost brother and those missing children. It took a lot of time, but after a coincidental urination trip uncovers a clue in the form of said cabin, the missing girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are found alive. Turns out, they had a little help surviving on their own in the form of Mama (Javier Botet), and she's not exactly pleased to see her little girls go off to the big city to live with Jeffrey and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
The original short that Mama is based on, from Argentinian director Andres “Andy” Muschietti and his screenwriting partner/sister Barbara Muschietti, is a bit of self-contained brilliance with some effective, evocative images contained within. Some of those moments are translated directly to Mama the expanded feature film version, and in addition to the familiar, there are many other beautiful, chilling, effective scenes in the film. In particular, the nightmares caused by Mama are an impressive blend of live-action and digital effects, and are some of the stand-out scenes.
However, while the movie is visually stunning, the plot is pretty pedestrian. Kids in peril, a pretty young woman in peril, a handsome husband-type - Mama is a bunch of elements you've seen in scary movies before, but there's something there that makes it a little better than its parts. Maybe it's the visuals. Maybe it's the touching relationship between the children and their pseudo-stepmother and how it grows over time; I like that Annabel is really resistant to taking care of the children until she has to, despite her loyalty to Jeffrey. I like that the children have a whole lot of trouble adjusting to civilization.
For whatever reason, the pedestrian nature of the plot didn't particularly bother me, and I think the very high quality of acting involved from Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the very creepy Javier Botet, and the two little actresses has a lot to do with it. Amazingly, the child actresses are both really good, too. In particular, little Megan Charpentier as Victoria, the older of the two sisters, is excellent.
As for Botet, he's brilliant. He's very tall, very thin, and very creepy, especially once the makeup is applied. There's some great special effects work in this film, angling towards the more atmospheric rather than high gore. The CGI is effectively blended in with practical special effects, and I think the fact that they actually had a monster there on set to crawl around and menace the other actors makes it that much more effective of a film. It's harder to emote against a blank wall or a tennis ball on a stick; having an actor seems to improve everyone's performance and make any horror monster more believable.
Still, the film has some great elements, but it's not all efficiently put together. Despite being a lean 100 minutes, it still feels like the movie is a bit stretched out in an attempt to be atmospheric. It succeeds at this more than it fails, but it still has its moments. All in all, it's not too shabby for a three-minute short expanded to feature length.
Mama opens in UK cinemas on the 22nd February.
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