Monday, January 21, 2013

Come to Mama!

Mama is a haunting, visually beautiful horror film about the power of a mother’s love. In this case, it is the possessive, lethal love of a phantom mother who rescues two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), from their suicidal father and raises them in a dilapidated cabin in the middle of the woods. When the feral children are found five years later, they are thin, dirty, and acting like wildcats. After they are given into the custody of their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), the ghostly Mama follows them, reluctant to let them go.

The film’s artistic production design immediately sets this film above most horror movies. This is especially evident in the details of the dank cabin in the woods and the fairytale quality of the climactic cliff scene. Quite memorable is the design of the ghoul, Mama: a reedy, spindly-armed, double-jointed wraith the color of sodden wood, and it is very creepy how she rises out of rotten spots in walls.

Jessica Chastain offers her talent for thoughtful, non-stagey portrayals in the role of the heroine victimized by things that go bump in the night. Bass player for a goth rock band, Annabel admits to lacking motherly urges, but she must develop some motherly tendencies if she is going to save the girls from the possessive Mama who wants to take them to a watery grave. She may not want to have children of her own, but Annabel knows how to hold Victoria in a body lock to force a sense of care and safety upon her. Meanwhile, the two girls deserve commendations for their naturalistic, unstilted performances. They set up the most chilling moments by acting like animals or conversing with the ghost. Isabelle Nélisse, as the wildest child, speaks only a few words, and her staring eyes and her haunting face do a lot to convince you there is an intruder in the house.

Unfortunately, the film’s biggest drawback is that it doesn't trust the strengths of its acting, editing, and atmosphere to make us jump. Instead, it relies on that standard, and most irritating, schlock horror device of matching frights with excessively loud musical screeches. Damn! Cut that out! Mama does so much with its art direction, timing, and the placement of the reliably scary Mama in just the right place at the right time. Superbly, the film uses the simple device of suggesting that one of the girls is communicating with an unseen entity. SPOILER: In the film’s most masterful shot, the camera frames the open doorway to the girls’ bedroom in the right-hand half of the screen and a hallway in the other half. In the bedroom, Lilly giggles as she plays tug of war with someone concealed behind the wall. Is it Victoria? Then Victoria appears in the hallway, coming from another room. Simply chilling!

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