Thursday, January 17, 2013
I'm openly skeptical of PG-13-rated horror films, but the coolly creepy "Mama" passes the fright test.
This unnerving movie crawls its way under your skin and just keeps scratching at you, like an insect that has burrowed its way in and just keeps sinking its proboscis deeper. The filmmakers effectively blend computer-generated effects, jumpy editing and haunting sound effects for terrifying scares.
But they also manage that rare trick of weaving a pervasive blanket of dark mood, an almost suffocating sense of dread that sets up the boo-gotcha moments.
The film, produced by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, boasts a largely Spanish-language crew. Director Andrés Muschietti, who co-wrote the script with sister Barbara Muschietti and Neill Cross, expanded their 2008 short film of the same name. Astonishingly, all three principles are feature film first-timers.
The story begins with a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) killing his wife and kidnapping their two young daughters. But the escape turns to even deeper tragedy when they crash in remote Cotton Forge, and all three disappear.
Flash forward five years, and the man's brother Luke (Coster-Waldau again) has been paying hunters to search for any sign of his family. Just as his money runs out, the girls are located living in a ramshackle cabin, subsisting as feral creatures who crawl about on all fours.
Brought back for psychological counseling, the sisters are placed into Luke's custody along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). A punk rocker bedecked in tattoos, Goth makeup and a perpetual sneer, Annabel isn't crazy about suddenly becoming an instant stepmom to two little girls who barely even talk.
Their psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) helpfully explains that the sisters survived in part by creating an imaginary protector they called Mama, the memory of whom will fade as they gradually bond with Luke and Annabel.
But then, as they say, strange things start to happen.
At first the girls -- Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) -- seem odd, but fairly harmless. They doodle on the wall with crayons, and Lilly sleeps under her bed. Annabel grows more suspicious when she overhears them humming to themselves, and then their voices are joined by a deeper, haunting one.
"Mama" isn't terribly hard to suss out, both in terms of the apparition's nature and where the story will go. But the filmmakers make up in tone and atmosphere what they lack in novelty.
Chastain, newly nominated for her second Oscar, is solid in a somewhat underwritten role. Annabel is resentful and rebellious about the situation she's forced into, but slowly takes up the mantel of maternal warrior. Her scenes with the young actresses playing the sisters (both spot-on) have a distinct emotional tug you don't expect in a frightfest.
The CG used for Mama (Javier Botet did the stop-motion capture) is really good, a smoky mix of root tendrils, inky goo and insects. Mama feels like she just crawled up out of the earth, full of wriggly energy and animalistic primal urges. I could almost smell her.
Muschietti plays it for maximum effect, only letting us see suggestions and glimpses of Mama for most of the film. This movie is a prime example of how computerized imagery can enhance a cinematic experience without overwhelming it.
As a scary movie purist, I can't help pointing out "Mama" could have been even better with some judicious gore to amp up the white-knuckle experience. Still, as PG-13 horror goes, this is about the best I've seen since "The Ring."
3 stars out of four