Not Your Average Mama
The title may be tacky, but this Canadian-Spanish co-production, with Guillermo del Toro lending his name as producer, is one of the better horror films to have come out from the West in recent years, despite being filled with the usual cliches, actually contain a proper story, and delivered really well in terms of chills, thrills and everything that's necessary to creep you out and make you jump at your seat. Co-written and directed by Andres Muschietti, Mama shows how it boils down to story, building upon his short film of the same name some 5 years ago, and a solid cast to gloss over the expected bag of tricks.
Many of the cliches were put to good effect, which in some ways you'd come to expect certain things to happen in a certain way, and they did. While it may be blunted in terms of anticipation and build up, it didn't shy away from delivering that sucker punch when required, and kept good work in framing and editing for maximum impact when the moment called for the unabashed dip into tried and tested elements. One thing you'll note is how assured Muschietti's direction is, as if doing it all for the very first time, with the aim of wanting to stir up its scares really well. Liberal use of CG also helped, but never done in slip-shoddy fashion, which added a layer of positive production values to the film.
I mean, there's creepy children, a ghoul that gate-crashes a reunion of sorts, and the usual spooky house no thanks to noises during strange timings, and the rote blinking of lights. All ingredients that you've seen utilized to the death in various horror film productions, but coming together really well in Mama, playing to the strengths of these elements while fiercely ignoring the negativity associated with lazier filmmakers who just slap these elements together, expecting them to work. It's not a special effects extravaganza when it's not required, and Mama showed just how its story and characters were allowed to lead, rather than to have strangely illogical moments, even for a horror film, fall coincidentally into place.
Jessica Chastain may be the latest IT girl in Hollywood, and it's encouraging to note she's really going all out to take on various roles in different genres, despite her more recent art house leanings of late. Here, she's the quintessential scream queen, albeit only just, given her role of Annabel being a rock star wannabe, sporting almost full body tattoos that betray a rather soft demeanour, when her maternal instincts get called upon to look after the nieces of her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). They were found after having disappeared for five years, which the opening sequence and credits would have pointed to an unnatural upbringing under the hands of the titular Mama ghoul. Battling for custody, it is with reluctance that the couple take the children under their wing, probably because Annabel knows she'll eventually be dumped with the kids, which did happen.
And the entire middle act is when the fun begins, for fans of horror films forking out good money to be entertained with the roller coaster ride of scares. Muschietti and his story collaborators Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti managed to keep an entire back story up their sleeves, to reveal them in teasing fashion, which worked to keep you engaged throughout. And credit must go to Muschietti and his DP Antonio Riestra for having framed the initial introduction to the ghoulish elements that went for maximum WTF surprises, especially with sleight of hand techniques that didn't jar the narrative, nor relied on the necessity of a jump cut edit to hammer home its creepier moments. It grows, slowly, and that's one master stroke Mama had that worked wonders.
This is the second film in a row that had its child actors provide top notch performances. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse play sisters, who with the aid of CG move around complete with unnatural mannerisms, having it in term to creep you out, before having to develop their characters into emotional cores that added a lot more depth to this film as it steamrolls its way to the finale. Andres Muschietti is the name to watch now for taking something that's expected to be cliche in a horror film, but fulfilled more than you'd bargain for. A definite recommend!