With Mama, horror movie maestro Guillermo del Toro continues to give back to his favorite genre, using his significant influence within the film industry to give new directors the opportunity to freak audiences out. Mama, the feature filmmaking debut of Spanish director Andrés Muschietti, is the third scary movie to be released under the "Guillermo del Toro Presents" banner after 2007's The Orphanage and 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It's also the first horror movie for dramatic heavyweight (and current Best Actress Oscar nominee) Jessica Chastain, who gets a Goth makeover to play the edgy rocker chick-turned-reluctant guardian of two little girls recently returned to civilization after five years spent living like animals in a cabin in the woods, with only the ghost of a long-dead mental patient for company. Even if del Toro's name by itself is enough to lure you into the theater, here are five additional things you should know about Mama:
It's A Longer Version of a Well-Received Short Film
Back in 2008, Muschietti and his sister Barbara were just your average pair of aspiring filmmakers looking to generate interest in a screenplay they were developing. So as a way of a calling card, they went out and made a three-minute short that they wound up sending to festivals, before it eventually found its way to del Toro. (You can see it here.) In its original form, Mama wasn't so much a short-form narrative as a single short scene: two little girls awaken in the middle of the night and head downstairs looking for their mother, only to discover a phantom who lurches toward them, sending them screaming back up to their room. Honestly, it's a fairly straightforward, if well-staged piece of horror filmmaking, but something about it (most likely the design of the ghost, which is genuinely creepy) intrigued del Toro and he extended a helping hand to the duo as they went about elongating the short into a full-length film, a process that began with introducing a big chunk of backstory.
So as the movie version of Mama begins, those girls -- Victoria and Lilly -- are ages 3 and 1 respectively and they've just been kidnapped by their mentally unstable father (Josh Holloway lookalike Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a.k.a Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones), who brings them to a remote cabin after their car careens off the road and into a forest. Inside, he's summarily executed by the angry spirit haunting the dilapidated shack, which subsequently claims Victoria and Lilly as its own, while they, in turn, adopt it as their mother. Flash-forward five years and the now-feral girls are discovered and entrusted to the care of their uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). But "Mama" follows them home and hangs out in their new split-level abode, waiting for her moment to strike. It doesn't take long for their flesh-and-blood guardians to realize that something strange (and spooky) is going on and, with the mostly useless help of a child psychologist (Daniel Kash), they try to get to the bottom of the mystery, one that comes to involve the century-old legend of a madwoman who lost her own child moments before her death and whose spirit will be unable to rest until that wrong is somehow put right. That's a solid foundation to build a horror movie upon, although it's a shame that Muschietti doesn't take advantage of the expanded runtime to tease out the supernatural angle a bit longer. Another movie might have gotten more mileage out of the "Is the ghost real or are the girls just crazy?" question; Mama makes Mama a character early on... perhaps too early on.
It's Not Jessica Chastain's Norbit
One of the Hollywood's enduring urban legends is that Eddie Murphy's dual role as henpecked husband and plus-sized monster wife in the alleged comedy Norbit -- which opened three weeks before the Academy Awards -- cost him his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. It's probably not how things actually went down, but it's a tempting story to believe since Norbit was bad enough to explode all of the goodwill generated by Bill Condon's musical and single-handedly brought Murphy's comeback to a screeching halt. (The curse was reinforced in January 2009 when the anemic rom-com Bride Wars hit theaters, just as one of its stars, Anne Hathaway, received a Best Actress nomination for Rachel Getting Married... which she subsequently didn't win.) Since she filmed Mama well before embarking on Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain couldn't have known she'd be in the heat of the Oscar race when it finally arrived in theaters, but at least she can take comfort in knowing that -- even if she doesn't win the statue on February 24 -- it definitely won't be because of the movie. Compared to Norbit and Bride Wars, Mama is practically a masterpiece of its particular genre. And Chastain is actually quite good in it, bringing an unexpected dimension to the typical horror heroine role. Her physical transformation from red-headed ingénue to raven-haired Goth is striking as well and further burnishes her cred as a big-screen chameleon. (Too bad all the actors around her are so bland and boring.) This is a performance she can be proud of, not hide from.
It's Not As Artful (or As Scary) As The Orphanage and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
In his previous two productions, del Toro entrusted the camera to a pair of young directors -- J.A. Bayona and Troy Nixey, respectively -- who possessed remarkably mature visual sensibilities. So beyond their well-executed scares, both movies are just beautiful to watch, for Bayona's careful, precise framing and Nixey's unerringly smooth tracking shots. Based on Mama, Muschietti isn't as thoughtful or distinctive a filmmaker. The film's look is disappointingly generic, lacking the mood and texture on display in The Orphanage and Don't Be Afraid, which subsequently keeps it from fully establishing the unsettling aura that's so crucial to a film like this. Muschietti also hammers home the "Gotcha!" moments with less finesse than his predecessors, to the point where they feel cheap rather than frightening. Finally, there's a distinct clumsiness to the storytelling here that regularly breaks the spell it's trying to cast on the audience. Even for a horror movie, these characters (most notably the psychiatrist) behave in remarkably dumb ways because the narrative demands them to. And the middle section of the film just drags on and on, as Mama lurks about the house popping out an inopportune moments while Muschietti stalls for time on revealing her motivations. For a director and producer who typically possesses such strong storytelling instincts, it feels like del Toro dropped the ball by not pushing his protégée to refine his script before shooting.
It's Got a Killer Final Scene
The one area where it does feel like del Toro brought his full influence to bear is in the climactic sequence, which finds the girls having to choose between their two surrogate mother figures, Mama and Annabel. One of the hallmarks of del Toro's work has always been a pronounced sympathy for the freaks and monsters that populate his movies; you frequently get the sense that he's more enamored of them than the humans. After skulking around the edges of the frame for much of the movie, this extended final sequence finally gets at the heart of what makes Mama tick and it's an unexpectedly emotional and rewarding payoff. It's worth sitting through the rest of the movie just to get to that knockout of an ending.
It's a Wait for Blu-ray Movie All The Way
That said, if and when you do get around to watching Mama's final moments, make sure you're in the comfort of your own home to avoid the frustration at having paid movie theater prices to watch 10 great minutes out of an otherwise disappointing 100-minute feature. Come to think of it, the film as a whole might actually play better on TV anyway; Muschietti's vision can't fill a big-screen canvas, but would likely prove adequate in miniature.
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