Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mama (2013) Mini-review

In the midst of January's cinematic dumping-ground comes a solid and well-crafted ghost story, marred only by a few strange aesthetic choices: Mama (2013). Exec produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film was based on Barbara Muschietti 's 2008 Spanish language horror film of the same name in a bit of a dream-come-true scenario ("Hey, del Toro likes your short and wants to finance a feature. Sound cool to you?"). It's a satisfying film overall but with a few flaws that marred the final product.

The set up is fundamentally brilliant: two little girls, aged three and one, are abandoned by their psychotic father in a cabin in the woods. Their daddy's gone crazy and killed their mother, and he's about to shoot the oldest girl when a mysterious, ghostly entity snatches him up, takes him away, and saves the children. The two girls grow up feral and alone, watched over only by the ghostly presence who they call "Mama." When their uncle finally finds them five years later, the older girl is willing to become part of the society of the living, but the younger daughter, who never really learned to speak and is far more savage than her sister, remains attached to her death-mommy. If you happen to be a Freudian, you'll find their ages quite significant. But even if you're not, the dark fairy-tale evocations of the cabin in the woods, mixed in with some of horror's most effective, if well-worn, tropes (the uncanny child, gruesome motherhood) combine to create one unsettling experience.

While the story, lead performances and characterization, are all great, the ghost itself was a bit problematic for me. The apparition was just so badly rendered, the worst of the worst CGI. In the course of the film, certain photographs are used to illustrate Mama's origin story; these look a bit like Victorian spirit photos or death portraits, and are far scarier than the final CGI specter. Visually, a little less-is-more might've saved that ghost. 

Otherwise, Mama was a solid film, with a surprisingly -- and refreshingly -- bleak ending. It was certainly effective enough to give me nightmares: I awoke at 3am with a vague sense of terror over the idea of two little children lost in the woods, but not alone.

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