Niagara Gazette

January 22, 2013

CALLERI: Creeping around with Chastain and 'Mama'

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Events in horror movies rarely look as good as what transpires in “Mama,” a less than truly scary take on the classic nurturer of most lives, a person’s mother.

The film opens with a bit of Wall Street insanity, but not the monetary kind. No “greed is good” here. Rather, we get a greed-can-make-you-crazy prologue. We’re many miles away from the Manhattan epicenter of stocks and bonds, which is meant to prove that the economic meltdown of 2008 affected financial workers everywhere.

After a breathless beginning during which a killer slaughters his wife and his business partners, the guy takes his two very young daughters into the woods. Victoria is 3 and Lily is 1. Just as he’s about to shoot the girls and himself, something wicked this way comes. A specter descends upon the cabin.

The film jumps five years. The murderer’s brother, Lucas, who has seemingly spent a small fortune trying to find his nieces, discovers the young girls living a feral existence in primitive conditions in those very same woods and in that very same cabin. The little sisters are frightened, angry and lacking in far too many social skills to mention. Best visual? They skitter about like wind-up creatures.

This unformed childhood development recalls Francois Truffaut’s brilliant “The Wild Child,” a shimmering black and white masterpiece that is certainly more sophisticated than “Mama.” The former exists as a study of human behavior and the latter has been made to creep you out.

“Mama” proceeds as a ghost story with a little bit of Dr. Benjamin Spock thrown in. Victoria and Lily are cleaned up, given proper medical care, and studied by a professional child therapist. After a custody battle involving an aunt, the girls are allowed to move in with their Uncle Lucas in a house provided by the therapist. Now the fun really begins.

The therapist believes that the sisters will develop positively if they are given a chance to bond with their uncle and live in a structured environment. It doesn’t help that Victoria continually refers to an unseen “mama,” or that Lily prefers to sleep under, not on top of a bed, and enjoys munching on bugs and twigs. She also lets out howls of displeasure whenever anyone attempts to touch her. Don’t get too close to Lily.

The director and screenwriters have decided that there has to be a bigger fly in the ointment. Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel, is not child-friendly. In fact, she loathes them. Her life preference is to be a Goth rocker, a bassist no less. Music is her passion, not mothering. Before you can say “I think I know where this is going,” the films goes exactly there. Lucas is laid up, and Annabel is compelled to either flee for her life or raise the kids. Meanwhile, all manner of bizarre happenings take over the nice suburban house, which is a little too close to the original cabin for comfort. Some of these happenings include nighttime noises, misplaced objects, and a plague of moths.

“Mama” is a supernatural thriller that relies less on big jolts meant to terrify you and more on creepy atmospheric occurrences meant to make your skin crawl. The picture is not about blood and gore, but rather it’s about emotional attachment. Will Annabel be able to bond with Victoria and Lily, and they with she? Or, will she end up being one more victim of the ghost of motherhood past? The filmmakers have saved what they think is the best for last.

During its middle portion, the movie gets slightly sluggish. Things become a bit too familiar before the final 15 minutes when questions are answered. Regardless, “Mama” looks great thanks to cinematographer Antonio Riestra. Fernando Velázquez’s music adds a nice element.

This is the first feature directed by Argentina’s Andres Muschietti. It’s based on a short film he made in 2008. He wrote the screenplay with his sister Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross. The producer is Mexico’s horror maestro, Guillermo del Toro.

Lucas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau and the therapist by Daniel Kash. Victoria is acted by Megan Charpentier, and Isabelle Nelisse plays Lily. All four give it their all. However, it’s the appearance of current acting favorite Jessica Chastain as Annabel that has given the picture more buzz than it might normally receive. Chastain made this film before she made “Zero Dark Thirty,” the movie that would make her an Academy Award favorite. However, with her blonde hair dyed black and her genuinely believable characterization, it’s clear that she isn’t slumming.

“Mama” has dream sequences and dark humor and a keen respect for the audience’s intelligence. What it doesn’t have is a perfect ride to its interesting conclusion.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.