Friday, January 18, 2013

In Theaters: MAMA (2013)

(Canada/Spain - 2013)

Directed by Andy Muschietti.  Written by Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti.  Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat. (PG-13, 100 mins)

Old-school jolts and some unusually strong performances for genre fare of this type elevate a potentially shopworn premise like MAMA's to a higher level.  Yes, it's another story about a vengeful, malevolent spirit invading a house, but with the proceedings overseen by Guillermo del Toro (who's a bit more involved when he "presents" something than, say, the way Wes Craven would allow his name to be thrown on anything in the years right after SCREAM if the price was right), it's a cut above the norm, which, these days, usually mandates a found-footage premise.  Not here.  Del Toro protege Andy Muschietti, who also co-wrote the script with his sister Barbara (they dedicate the film to their mother), expands his 2008 short film of the same name and fashions a relentless, old-fashioned scare machine of a fright flick with no gore and only some occasionally wonky spirit CGI.

Two young girls, ages 3 and 1, are taken to a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere by the Wall Street broker father, who's just killed his business partners and his estranged wife.  He's about to kill the oldest daughter when something comes from the wall and grabs him.  Five years later, the girls' uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of GAME OF THRONES) and his girlfriend Annabel (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who will probably have three more films in the can by the time you finish reading this), a bassist in a punk rock band, are notified that the girls have been found.  Victoria (Megan Charpentier) is now 8, and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) 6, and both have been living in the wild all this time.  Victoria already had an established vocabulary and remembers their dog who now lives with Luke and Annabel, so her reintegration into a normal life is going much smoother than Lily's, who was still a baby at the time of their abandonment is now completely feral, crawling on all fours, unable to form sentences, eating nothing but cherries and the occasional insect, and refusing to even wear shoes.  Both girls keep referring to "Mama," and their psychologist (Daniel Kash) thinks this is a separate personality that Victoria has developed in caring for Lily, who literally clings to her sister.  But when the girls call for "Mama," Victoria's eyes are filled with fear. She knows to be afraid of what Mama is capable of doing. Mama has followed them from the cabin to Luke and Annabel's house, a spirit residing in the wall at the back of their closet, fiercely protective of the girls she's loved and cared for over the last five years and not about to let anyone usurp that position in their lives.  When Luke ends up in a coma after a Mama-provoked tumble down the stairs, Annabel is forced to take care of the girls, a job she flat-out doesn't want (she's introduced in a state of joy over a home pregnancy test coming up negative), but she steps up when it matters, and when she manages to make a breakthrough with each girl, a bond is formed and affection develops, and, well, Mama is upset, to put it mildly.

From a strictly technical standpoint, Muschietti does a terrific job with the staging of the film's many effective scare sequences.  One in particular, with the stationary camera showing a hallway and the parallel entrance to the girls' room, as activity takes place in the girls' room (Lily is playing with what we initially assume to be Victoria, but Victoria is then seen in the hallway, and then we see a strange shadow in the room with Lily) is the kind of scene that's guaranteed to make future "100 Scariest Movie Moments" TV specials.  It's one of several that had the audience buzzing throughout the film.  I like the way Muschietti and cinematographer Antonio Riestra let the camera roam around the house, almost to the point where the house itself becomes a character.  The script takes some real chances, especially in the way it handles Annabel.  Not really the motherly type and not afraid to make it clear ("This is not my job!"), it falls to Chastain to make the audience care about this cold, stand-offish, and frequently selfish character, and much the way she did in ZERO DARK THIRTY, she pulls off the difficult task making such a character accessible.  Chastain establishes a real chemistry with Charpentier and Nelisse, both very expressive young actresses who turn in a pair of remarkable performances.  Nelisse, especially, doesn't say much other than "Mama" but conveys volumes with just a smile on her face, or even in the unsettling way she crouches under the bed or in a corner, like an animal waiting to attack.  MAMA has its share of expertly-orchestrated scares, but the film's secret weapon is the work of these three actresses.  The male characters aren't handled nearly as well, with Luke sidelined for much of the story, and the child psychologist filling the horror film's requisite idiot role by making moronic decisions that no reasonably intelligent or sane person would make.  And, of course, in a plot development that's not even worthy of a spoiler alert, he pays for it.

One gets the sense that this is the vision of the Muschiettis to a point.  Del Toro acts as a mentor in these producing situations and largely leaves those under his wing to do what they do, but his influence does become significantly more apparent in third act, which seems like a variation on the del Toro-produced THE ORPHANAGE (2007).  I'm not sure who's responsible for the ending, but it's a courageous decision that probably had some studio execs at Universal concerned.  I'm going to guess that it was the Muschiettis' idea and Del Toro backed them up.  What transpires is unexpected and downbeat, but in a strange way, probably best for all concerned.  It's an unexpected and emotional finish for what will likely be one of the top horror films of the year. 

1 comment:

  1. The movie was quite disappointing to me. Well crafted, but it was sort of deja vu. I'm really missing Del Toro as a director!