Mama

Anybody who is half as serious about Halloween as my friends are watch horror movies all throughout October.  Well, all throughout the year, but October brings a concentrated dose of the scary.  That said, a few nights ago I Redboxed Mama as part of a double date as one of my many Halloween-appropriate film choices.  From looking at reviews on IMDb I could tell that feelings about the film were mixed, the critics feeling pretty lukewarm about it, the users more positive.  The top five or so user reviews very articulately explained very positive (eight to ten stars) feelings about the film, so I decided to give it a shot.

As a whole, I liked it.  I’m going to break it down more than that, but I fear that my critique may give an unduly negative feel about the film, Sadly, this poster is slightly scarier than the film itself.so I just want to be clear that as a whole this is an enjoyable film that doesn’t make for a wasted evening.

For starters, just a brief blurb on the gist of the plot, as free from spoilers as I can manage: Mama is the story of a young couple, Annabel and Lucas, the latter of whom having a recent family tragedy in which his brother went nuts and shot a bunch of people, kidnapped his young daughters, and disappeared.  The broken family has a car crash, ends up in the woods, and the father is killed, leaving two very young girls to be cared for by a supernatural entity known as “Mama.”  For years Lucas funds a constant search for his brother and his nieces, and finds them– shaped by the years in the forest.  The plot then takes off with all these pieces in place.

That was surprisingly difficult to explain.  Let’s just say it sets all this up very nicely.

The most impressive element of this film is the acting.  The adult cast’s performances were all very solid, but the real stars of the show were the little girls.  They capture the broken social skills of the girls, really showing off in a tangible way (their movements) how inhuman living in the woods made them.  The differences between the two girls– with the younger, who has no memories of civilized life– being so distinct when they are reintroduced to society is also impressively portrayed.  In many ways the girls are the most frightening element of the film.

The story is also quite strong in the piece.  It progresses quite naturally, with strong characters whose interactions very naturally progress the story.  There is unfortunately one or two bits of Mama that relied on some deus ex machina (such as the non-Mama dream– you’ll see if you watch it) that bothered me, especially since there really could have been more plot-conducive reasons the related character performs a certain action, but the rest of the story flows quite smoothly and realistically.  I like that it used many conventions of the horror genre, and of ghost stories in particular, but did so in a way that manipulated audience expectations, using those expectations to form a sort of thrill ride viewing experience.  The story’s conclusion is surprisingly thought-provoking and sparked a fairly lengthy conversation among those I watched with, managing to be both satisfying and unsettling– which I feel is a rare and powerful thing in the genre.  I don’t always need that blended feeling, but it is refreshing that it mixes things up.  I feel with horror generally, and especially in film, [SPOILERS FOR 1408, FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE FOURTH KIND, AND CABIN IN THE WOODS] that too often everything is wrapped up too nicely  (1408, where everything is A-okay after he gets out), or wrapped up nicely but then with an unexplained shock ending (Jason surfacing at the end of Friday the 13th), or is just depressing, or with nothing gained or explained (The Fourth Kind, which resulted in both my wife and I just saying “What?” and vowing to never watch any movie with Milla Jovovich again) or extremely catastrophic (Cabin in the Woods and the destruction of the ENTIRE WORLD) [END SPOILERS].

And now to my beef with Mama.  Mama.  As I’ve stated, I’m pretty good with the story, and that, of course, extends to Mama.  She is pretty creepy in concept, and for about half the film, pretty creepy in execution.  The problem is that, in the latter half of the film, they show her.  A lot.  She looks pretty weird, yes, but stereotypical cartoon alien weird, which is not what I wanted for a freaky, angry maternal poltergeist.  And it isn’t so much that I’m disappointed with the effects people not making her creepy enough, it’s that I did not want to get a good look at her at all.  Just as the terrifying nature of Samara vanishes when you properly see her in The Ring, Mama loses the mystique of the unknown.  Honestly, if they didn’t show her face for the entire movie I would have found it twice and scary, easily.  When she’s being a floor shark, only her hair visible moving through the carpet, she’s solid.  When you can’t see her properly because the camera is showing the older sister’s vision without glasses, I shuddered wondering what she could be.  The director really missed something good with her.

I’d say pretty much everything else was pretty solid.  The score was good, contributing to the atmosphere while avoiding distraction.  The visuals (except as I’ve noted) were dark in a good way.  The opening credits, which made use of children’s drawings to tell the story of the girls’ lives with Mama, were very unsettling.

 

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