Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mama (2013) - Classic Maternal Battles with Jessica Chastain

Mama: From the Gates of Hell She Barks at Thee

Mama 2013 film poster
"Mama" (2013).

Andres Muschietti directs "Mama" (2013), a Spanish-Canadian horror film from Toma 78 starring the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain. If you are looking for something in - or from - the same vein as "Sinister," "Mama" is just what you need. Most of the film is spent unravelling the mystery of Mama and whether she even exists, and, if she does exist, what exactly she is. "Mama" leaves the viewer with more ambiguity than most other classic horror films and the plot is a bit confused. However, it is a real thrill ride and mystery. "Mama" may rely on a lot of the standard horror film clichés, but "Mama" lives up to its horror-film billing and will creep you out as it scares you.

Annabel Lucas Mama 2013
"Now, children...."

Jeffrey is an analyst at an investment bank. The market is experiencing a crisis, and Jeffrey unravels under the pressure. He shoots some of his colleagues and estranged ex-wife, then loads his two young girls (Lilly and Victoria) in the car and takes off. They wind up on an icy road and Jeffrey, driving like the maniac that he is, crashes the car into the woods. They stumble upon an abandoned cabin, and Jeffrey is about to kill the children and then himself when suddenly a supernatural being swoops down and pulls him away from the children and kills him. The children never get a good look at the strange being.

Annabel and the children Mama 2013
Annabel and the children see something scary in "Mama."

Five years pass, and finally searchers hired by Jeffrey's twin brother Lucas find the crashed car and then the cabin with the two children still alive. While having grown, they also regressed, becoming animal-like. A psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss, treats them, while Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel, obtain custody but have to live in a special facility with the children so that the children can be studied. The children keep referring to "Mama," who appears at the facility but is only seen by the children (she causes electrical problems and is usually accompanied by black moths). However, Annabel begins having dreams of Mama, dreams Mama causes her to have. Dr. Dreyfuss begins to believe that the children may be telling the truth about Mama, so he does some research.

Jessica Chastain looking surprised Mama 2013
Jessica Chastain rockin' that '80s bangs look in "Mama."

Turns out that "Mama" was a mental patient in the 1800s who broke out of her asylum, stabbed a nun who was caring for Mama's baby Lilly, and stole the child. Chased by the police, Mama jumped over a cliff and hit a tree branch, killing herself and Lilly. Mama's body fell into the lake below, but Lilly remained stuck on the branch, where she was recovered by authorities. Mama, missing her child in death, became a ghost who prowled the woods looking for Lilly. When she saw Victoria and Lilly in the cabin, she felt a maternal kinship to them and protected them.

Jessica Chastain as Annabel looking grim Mama 2013
"Love is a battlefield...."

Mama doesn't like Lucas and pushes him down some stairs, causing him to fall into a coma. Annabel is left as the sole caretaker of the children, even though she initially resisted having anything to do with them. Lilly remains a problem, resisting a return to normal behavior. Annabel gradually warms to the children, and Victoria, the older child, begins to like Annabel as well and even warns her about Mama's jealousy. Lilly, though, remains devoted to Mama.

Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly Mama 2013
You mean, you mean... Justin got engaged? Ahhhhhhh!!!!!

Dr. Dreyfuss becomes more and more certain of Mama's existence, and obtains the corpse of Mama's dead child for... some reason. He even sees Mama with Victoria. Dreyfuss becomes curious about the cabin and goes there to investigate, where Mama kills him. Meanwhile, Lilly's aunt, who wanted custody of the children herself, wrongly believes that Annabel is abusing the children and begins spying on them at the facility where they live.

Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly Mama 2013
"Look into my eyes... ok... now.. dance like a chicken!"

Annabel snoops around Dr. Dreyfuss' office and finds some of his papers and also the corpse of Mama's baby, which Annabel takes for... some reason. Mama, already upset about the alienation of Victoria's affections, attacks Annabel despite Victoria's attempts to protect Annabel. Annabel is overcome by Mama. The girls' aunt arrives and is possessed by Mama, who takes them to the cabin.

Annabel and Lucas Mama 2013
Annabel and Lucas in "Mama."

Annabel recovers and drives to the cabin, finding Lucas already there. He woke out of his coma because he had a dream about the children being in danger. At the cabin, they find the aunt dead but no sign of the children. Annabel surmises that Mama took the children to the cliff to die just as she took her own child. Lucas and Annabel are able to stop the children from jumping, but the sight of her own baby's corpse calms her down and returns her to a normal human appearance. Lilly, though, wants the old Mama back, causing Mama to turn evil again. She attacks Lucas and grabs the kids, taking them back to the cliff. Annabel grabs Victoria, but Lilly remains loyal to Mama and there is nothing Annabel can do to stop them from jumping off of the cliff.

Victoria Lilly Mama 2013
Scary things happen at night in "Mama."

"Mama" is a film about doing the right thing for children who don't necessarily want to cooperate. Jessica Chastain is very able as the reluctant caregiver who becomes trapped into a battle of wills with a supernatural power, looking uncannily like Ally Sheedy from "The Breakfast Club" or perhaps Joan Jett with the obtrusive black bangs. Chastain is a bit bland in this role, too laid back for someone battling a being from another dimension. Chastain does the usual "please just tell me what is bothering you" pleading scenes with the children that every film like this has, and she doesn't do them with any originality, so reviewers gushing about Chastain as if every performance from her is pure gold are a bit off. She is the actress of the moment, though, so the hype is on. "Mama" goes to great lengths to set up a confrontation between good and evil, and neither side really wins. Mama is a perverted form of the mother/child bond, while Annabel offers a synthetic version of that same bond, even though neither of them actually is the childrens' mother. The horror of "Mama" derives from this maternal battle of wills, and the supernatural element almost becomes a sideshow at the end because everything depends upon how the children react, demonstrating the intense power, but also the limits, of maternal power and the beginnings of its development in Annabel.

Annabel, Lucas, children Mama 2013
"It was a dark and scary night...."

Director Muschietti shows a sure touch. "Mama" is an expansion of a previous short film that Muschetti created, and he does a terrific job of using stylized flashbacks and other techniques to flesh out the characters' background. Guillermo del Toro is the executive producer, and his presence no doubt helped with the horror aspects. Unfortunately, "Mama" has the usual coincidences, cheap scares and contrivances (such as Mama only being visible to the children until her secret is out, then anyone can see her) of mediocre horror film clichés. Characters are used for specific purposes, then conveniently disposed of (Dr. Dreyfuss), people who would know better go into risky situations alone, the soundtrack (by Fernando Velázquez) swells dramatically when we are supposed to be frightened, and so on.

Guillermo del Toro and Andres Muschietti Mama 2013
Guillermo del Toro and Andres Muschietti work on "Mama."

The idea of an evil maternal figure such as Mama, crazed because of some interruption of her womanly function, who takes her aggressions out on someone else's children is nothing new, as fans of "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and many, many other horror films can attest. Such characters don't always make sense. Here, though, "Mama" is very scary and surprisingly touching, if a bit over the top as a controlling mother. The actresses playing the children, Megan Charpentier (Victoria) and Isabelle Nelisse (Lilly), do a fine job. As usual in these types of dramas that revolve around children, the men (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Lucas/Jeffrey, Daniel Kash as Dr. Dreyfuss) take a back seat and are eliminated from interfering while the women thrash out the kids' fate. Mama herself, interestingly, is voiced by three different women (Laura Guiteras, Melina Matthews, and Jane Moffat) but actually played by a man (Javier Botet), which lends a little added ambiguity to the proceedings.

Muschietti directing Chastain in Mama 2013
Muschietti directing in "Mama"

"Mama" is a fine horror film that is a bit light on the actual horror, perfect for the dog days of January, or any other time when there isn't much else to do and you want some intense film excitement. Muschietti and his sister, , who helped with writing and producing "Mama," deserve a lot of credit for turning a two-minute short into a full feature-length motion picture. Muschietti has good control of the action and keeps the camera rolling through entire scenes, not just relying on the crutch of quick editing like so many others these days. The ending of "Mama" clearly sets up a sequel, which is likely to happen given "Mama"'s success at the box office. If Muschetti can hold down the clichés in the next outing, that sequel might be even better than "Mama" and give horror triumphs such as "Sinister" a run for their money.


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