By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Mama
MAMA (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.:Andy Muschietti, 2013
Remember the good old, bad old days of movie horror, when screen frightmeisters didn’t always seem to try to turn our stomachs to make our hair stand on end? Remember when blood and gore and paranormal high jinks and lousy, deliberately amatuerish-looking camerawork and weren‘t the names of the game, when audiences could get scared at a moviewithout also getting revolted? Some pretty good movies helped make that grisly transition — shows like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street, and even not so good but interesting pictures like The Blair Witch project– but that doesn’t mean those same movies weren’t also resposnible for an awful lot of crap.
Mama is something of a throwback, and at times a stunning one.. At other times, it’s not stunning at all. But at its best, this state-of-the-art modern ghost story — another scare saga from the Guillermo Del Toro factory — recalls those earlier, less bloody days of fear and (not necessarily) loathing, when horror films were made for adults, and when they could even strive to be a little subtle, and literate. Filled with elegant, spooky images of otherworldly phantasms plaguing fairly real-seeming people, Mama spins a yarn about two little feral girls, Victoria and Lilly, left in the forest in a shabby cabin after their distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) freaks out, following a financial wipe-out, and hustles the girls out to the forest. His goal: trying to kill them both, followed by his own suicide.
The girls, however are rescued by a sinister-looking wraith-thing that is (or was) apparently their mother (played by Javier Botet, with lots of CGI). And five years later — after somehow surviving in the woods by themselves for all that time — the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization. (Unfortunately, there are still financial woes, thanks to the U. S. Congress at its most monstrous.)
So the lassies are set up in a fairly posh home by an inquisitive doctor interested in their psychology (Daniel Kasha as Dr. Dreyfuss). They are cared for by their late father’s brother, a Bohemian-style artist named Lucas (Coster-Waldau in the second stanza of a double part) and his punky-pretty girl band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Needless to say, the two little girls – the tamer and more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger, wilder Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) — prove quite a handful. Not as much of s handful, though, as the flying, swooping, totally spooky creature who is apparently their very protective mom. Or what she’s become.
I’m not partial to a lot of modern horror movies, especially the ones with a big Ick-factor. But I like most of Del Toro’s work, and I enjoyed this one. Del Toro was the executive producer here, and the director-cowriter, making his feature debut, is Andy Muschietti. He’s no Del Toro, but he’s an imaginative chap with a very spiffy visual sense,
Besides, starting Mama off with a big financial crisis demonstrates that the movie has a good sense of what’s genuinely scary about contemporary society — and who the real monsters are. Also, having a heroine who’s a punk rocker of sorts shows both that the movie is somewhat hip and that Jessica Chastain — an Oscar favorite this year for her work as the CIA Bin Laden hunter in “Zero Dark Thirty“ — can be an amazingly versatile actress.
Playing Annabel, she attracts and repels (a little) and stirs things up. She also gives us a sense of reality, and her believable reactions to all the spooky things swirling around her pull us right into the action. So do the wild responses of Charpentier and Lelisse as Victoria and Lilly, two of the scariest little girls on screen since the blank-faced little ghosts in Stanley Kubrick’s and Stephen King’s chilling classic The Shining.
Anyway, watching Mama, I was occasionally reminded of another classic movie horror tale about a little girl and her mother, producer Val Lewton’s and co-director Robert Wise’s 1944 low-budget Curse of the Cat People. Mama isn’t low-budget, and it doen’t have any cat people, cursed or not, but, at times, it scares you without creeping you out. So does Jessica Chastain.