Mama (2013)
By: Stuart Giesel on November 1, 2013 | Comments
Universal Sony | Region B | 1.85:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 100 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse
Screenplay: Andy Muschietti
Country: Spain, Canada
Two young girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are abducted by their father Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) after he kills their mother (something to do with the GFC, just to make it topical) and they wind up in a snowbound forest, happening across an old cabin where Jeffrey plans to kill them and then commit suicide. He's thwarted by a mysterious female apparition, which dispatches him handily and raises the children as her own over the next five years. Jeffrey's brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, again) hasn't given up trying to find the girls after all this time, and when they're discovered he's intent on raising them as his own children despite the obvious psychological trauma they've suffered, and despite the protests of his live-in girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). According to child psychologist Dr Gerard Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash, who could win a Tony Shaloub lookalike competition, hands down) they've resorted to creating a fictitious guardian to keep them alive over the long, wintry years. But it turns out that this guardian - aka "Mama" - is real, and gets really jealous when the girls' affections turn elsewhere.

Mama is ostensibly the story of three women coming to terms with their maternal instincts. Annabel is the goth-rocker girlfriend of Lucas who is a reluctant but ultimately compassionate surrogate mother; the girls' snooty aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) is the entitled one who believes she is the rightful guardian, and is resentful that the girls ended up with the brother of the man who killed her sister; and Mama herself (played by a male (!), Javier Botet) who has adopted the girls as her own, given that her own child is lost to her as we find out in a flashback where blah-de-blah-de-blah. It's nice that a horror film has a feminine slant, much like the original Alien did, but the problem with Mama is that whilst it's technically competent - actually, scratch that, it's technically superior - it doesn't push the horror envelope like it should. Granted, this is undoubtedly a casualty of going for the PG-13 audience, but there isn't enough grimness or nastiness here for it to be a pure horror film. There's a definite absence of true horror (i.e. unpleasantness, unease, disturbing content) and gore, but the craftsmanship that has gone into Mama is undeniable. You get the feeling that if writer/director Andy (Andres) Muschietti had been willing to really push the material into a deeper, darker territory, and had a studio willing to let go of the extra dollars by upping the MPAA rating, Mama might have been something special. It didn't have to slather the screen with explicit gore, but it could have delivered something that's far beyond what feels like a partially-neutered film.

The movie's biggest problem is that the creepiness bleeds out of the picture once we see Mama in the flesh, so to speak. We find out about her backstory, and as a result it makes her a far less compelling and frightening monster - it would have been better if less was explained rather than more, and because we the audience are so far ahead of what Annabel and Lucas know, everything's pretty much played out as expected, save an ending which is a bit out of left field. If Muschietti had gone the Jaws route as he tends to do so in the first half of the film - that is, only hint at the monster that's hiding out of sight - then the film probably would have worked better. It could be argued that once we realise who and what Mama is, the character should come across as less of a monster and more sympathetic; so if that's the case, then why does the movie continue to have her launch herself aggressively into the camera screeching like a banshee?

In big bold font Mama proclaims it is presented by Guillermo Del Toro. In fact, the back of the Blu-Ray box misleadingly proclaims that this is "from the creator of Pan's Labyrinth". It's true that there is some similarity to his work here, such as the creepy atmosphere, confident and elegant camerawork, and a strong blending of practical and CGI effects. But Mama lacks what Del Toro's films, most notably Pan's Labyrinth, tend to have: beautifully detailed world-building, an exotic texture and absolutely crazy creativity. Anyway, the true strength of Mama is in the performances, which are all top-notch. The two young girls who play the sisters, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse,  completely avoid both the "annoying/precocious kid" syndrome (as seen in Home Alone, Jurassic Park and many others) and the "obvious creepy kid" routine (as seen in The Good Son and The Omen, to name a few). Jessica Chastain is terrific as always, and striking in her goth outfit (tattoos, black hair and eyeliner, severe haircut) - and for those who are finding the film uninteresting in other departments, her impressive cleavage might be enough to keep eyes fixed to the screen. To her and the filmmaker's credit, Annabel isn't presented as the doting, loving surrogate mother from the outset - at first she's actually resentful of the girls' impact on her boyfriend's affections. She's alternately fearful, distrustful and repelled by them. It's only as the film goes on that she becomes emotionally bonded to the girls (and, to be honest, less to the younger Lilly, who seems beyond salvation because of her age and Mama's impact on her). This dynamic is probably the most interesting part of the film. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau provides solid support, though he becomes less essential as the film goes on.

Cinematography is for the most part superb - chill, wintry vistas and nights, the colour desaturated, or otherwise brown, earthy visuals; there's only one bit that's overdone when we see a flashback through Mama's eyes (via Annabel's nightmare) that looks like a Photoshop filter gone wrong. There's a solid score by Fernando Velazquez that admittedly echoes Danny Elfman's work at times, and a couple of really cheap, but admittedly effective, scares. CGI was a tad overused and obvious (creeping hair, spreading rot, etc) but Mama herself was quite impressively realised, possibly because she was actually played by an actor, albeit one with CGI embellishments like ghostly hair. But as mentioned, the more we know about Mama, the less of a scary enigma she becomes, and the less interesting the movie becomes as a result.

As an aside and completely unrelated to anything else covered so far, I was highly amused to discover that we learn that Dr Dreyfuss has penned a non-fiction book about Mama - as Annabel discovers on his laptop - which is stored in a folder that is misspelled "reasearch" - that really bodes well for the quality of the book, buddy.

Mama won't appeal to those horror aficionados who prefer their films slathered with gore, but viewers who don't see the PG-13/M rating as a turn-off will no doubt appreciate the creepy atmosphere and strong performances from the entire cast, the two young girls and Jessica Chastain in particular. Unfortunately once Mama herself comes into full view and we discover her backstory, much of the movie's creepiness drains away. You want a truly scary film? Don't overexplain your monster. Still, there's a lot here to enjoy if you're in an undemanding mood.
The Disc
Even those who aren't particularly blown away with Mama would have to admit that Universal's Blu-Ray transfer is pretty stellar in both the visual and audio departments. The snow-bound sequences of Mama's domain, the earthly and warm hues of the household, the dark and nightmarish sequences towards the end - it all looks superlative in high-def. Colour for the most part seems to be toned down to keep in sync with the sort of unsettling atmosphere that Mama is trying to conjure, but the blacks are commendably black and detail is wonderful. The 5.1 audio track is goes for immersiveness rather than overblown impact, which means there are a lot of sounds that go towards generating unease: creaks, doors closing, off-camera sounds, the usual horror stuff. That is, until we come to the cheap scares, which absolutely BLARE sound through the speakers in a hope that it scares the shit out of you. Which it does. Dialogue, score and sound effects are all extremely well balanced so that nothing is drowned out.

Special features are your standard collection of making of featurettes and bits and pieces, along with the now-obligatory (and, methinks, unnecessary) Ultraviolet digital download. The Birth of Mama is a short but agreeable behind-the-scene featurette covering the conception and creation of Mama, with contribution by executive producer Guillermo Del Toro, director/co-writer Andy Muschietti, and most of the main cast including Chastain, Coster-Waldau, Charpentier and Nelisse. An audio commentary is provided by the Muschietti siblings, who provide a great many details for those who can't get enough of Mama, although you'll be saying "no shit, Sherlock" a few times. Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama shows how Mama utilised both practical and CGI effects - this is the more thorough and interesting of the two featurettes. The original short that started it all is introduced by Del Toro, and although it's very short indeed (clocking in at five minutes) it's pretty effective, more so than the full-length feature film that it spawned. The short also has optional commentary with the Muschiettis Finally, the disc contains six deleted scenes running about seven minutes, with optional commentary by director Muschietti. As with most deleted scenes, these were presumably determined to be superfluous and cut for time - in this case it wasn't a tremendous loss.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Though the final act suffers due to an overexposure of the film's 'monster', Mama delivers some genuine chills and a couple of cheap scares. The strong performances anchor the film, it's a treat to look at, but don't go in expecting a Guillermo Del Toro-styled film just because he executive-produced it. It's a perfectly satisfactory ghost story, nothing more.
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