Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mama (2013) : Maternal Instincts Are A Bitch

Haven't we seen enough CGI ghosts to last a lifetime? Guess not, as producer Guillermo del Toro lends his name and reputation to the latest spectral concoction of contrived story-lines and computer-generated frights.

Not to say that Mama isn't entertaining for the most part, but when we finally witness the horror that is the title character, I found myself sighing and wishing I'd have waited for DVD.  There are some requisite jump scares and some chilling moments here and there but for the most part I will have to admit I was not scared. And that, rather than body count or creative kills, is what I'm looking for these days, so I thought Mama would be firmly in my wheelhouse.

Monsters and ghosts that are computer generated just lack the finesse to produce any kind of visceral reaction from me. And if that sounds snobbish then so be it.  I am a practical effects junkie and for the most part detest CGI (unless of course it is very good CGI, read: Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings - but hey, not everyone can get WETA to join their production!)

However, the basic story of Mama (based on a 2008 short film by director Andres Muschietti) is a compelling one.  It highlights the maternal instinct pretty hard, proving once again that a mother's love knows no bounds. And in horror films, that usually results in moms reaching out from beyond the grave to assist or protect their children.  Which is just what we have here.

A father whose life is upended by financial ruin kills his wife (off-camera) and steals away with his two young children, Victoria and baby Lilly.  He is so distraught that he drives off onto snowy roads and flips the car over an embankment.  Amazingly, the family of (now) three manage to survive the crash and walk off into the woods, happening upon a deserted cabin looking akin to the Evil Dead cottage. Not good.

After a few hours sitting around, Dad of the Year decides it's best to just off the family, so he attempts to distract Victoria by telling her to look out the window. Just before he pulls the trigger on the gun he has aimed at her head, someone -or something - attacks him from behind, effectively ending his macabre plan (and his life, apparently).  Hence the youngsters are left in the cabin to fend for themselves.

Moving ahead 5 years (yeah, right. Five years in the woods alone. Okaaaaay.), and we have the uncle of the two girls who has been actively pursuing leads and still searching for his brother - all this time.  Lucas (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) definitely deserves Brother of the Decade, if we're not done labeling people.  He's even been paying people to keep up the search.

One day, the two men employed to hunt for his family find the wrecked car and eventually discover the isolated cabin.  What they don't expect to find is Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), living in squalor and filth and behaving like animals.  Probably the most frightening part of the film is seeing these two young girls acting like feral beasts. The scurry across the floor and jump from table to refrigerator like demented monkeys.  I've seen movies with feral children (Shiver, The Woman) but just one glimpse of these forgotten tykes had me shivering.  By far the creepiest moment.

Once Lucas and his rock-band girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, looking not unlike Joan Jett here) find out the girls are alive, they do everything in their power to make sure their nieces stay with them and not with a wealthy aunt from the "other side of the family". With the help of child psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the couple does indeed end up with the kids, and a new house to boot - provided by Dreyfuss for psychiatric research studies.  A long period of adjustment begins, with the older Victoria coming around gradually, in part because she was older and retained some memories of normalcy.  Lilly however, remains unapproachable - practically growling at every turn.

One of the troubles with this type of storyline is believability. It's truly hard to fathom that children taken from horrific conditions such as these, with no real grasp on the world, would be placed with anyone - let alone a couple who are 1) not married 2) not financially stable 3) seemingly irresponsible 4) have careers lacking any sense of accountability or future...the list goes on.  These children would need to be in a psychiatric setting for quite some time.  But alas, it's only a movie....

Soon we (meaning us, the audience) are privy to the fact that Mama has followed the girls to their new home and has no intention of giving them up.  After Lucas has a Mama-induced mishap and falls down a flight of stairs, he is rendered useless with a coma in the hospital- leaving poor Annabel to fend for herself with the unstable kids.  She does give it the old college try, eventually realizing that Mama was guardian to the children while they were alone in the woods, and that Mama has designs on sticking around.  She experiences frightening dreams which lead her to dig into the past of the mysterious guardian and finds some disturbing facts. Mama was an escaped mental patient who jumped off a cliff with her young baby (also called Lilly, if you can believe that) in tow.  Mama has developed an unwavering attachment to these children and will go to any end to keep them with her.  Unfortunately, Victoria begins to become attached to Annabel, causing Mama's wrath to unfold as only a long haired vengeful ghost's can.

So many of the standard ghost story tricks apply here. Mama's long dark hair flows out from the walls and closets, scurries across the floor like a weasel, and wraps around people menacingly.  Strange moldy-looking stains appear on the walls, and with further inspection seem to be a portal for the ghost that produces black moths that crawl out and fly about the room.  The new house is rife with electrical problems, with lights flickering constantly.  Information is easily obtained from the little old lady who works in the records room.  The good doctor's flashlight fails just when he needs it the most and he employs his camera flash to see the real Mama.  Ghostly creatures shuffle and walk with those jerky movements that are so overused these days... Like I said, not much new here.

What is at the heart of the story is whether or not the punk-rock Annabel (who did the dance of joy at the beginning of the film after getting a negative pregnancy test) will give enough of herself to entertain the idea of raising these children as her own.  Will she become attached enough to fight tooth and nail against forces unknown (or known, in this case) in order to save their souls (and their lives)?  Annabel isn't really a very likable person, so it's hard to imagine that happening.

Now. Back to the CGI.  As previously stated, I'm not a fan.  I'm tired that every damn movie made these days has to use this technique at some point.  Though there was an actual actor (Javier Botet, the creepy dude at the end of .Rec) playing the role of Mama, it was still obvious where the CGI was added - Mama's face was a little too fakey looking to me, and her hair was simply everywhere - flowing every which way and then some. Her crazy walk/crawl/run was totally CGI. What happened to just doing it the old fashioned way?  Like in the original '89 version of The Woman in Black, seeing the title character standing across the graveyard - it was a real damn person.  Not a caricature of one. And it was scary. Not cartoonish.
Same goes for Ghost Story, The Innocents, etc.  Please forgive my bitchiness, I'm just sick of everything looking like this:

Regardless, the actual amount of CGI in this movie really isn't too bad.  I've seen worse.  Much worse (i.e. Van Helsing). But I still feel like this film could have been done with practical effects.  It does however, lack a serious amount of chills and thrills.  There are a few jump scares that shook up the teenaged girls sitting in front of me (though I don't know how thy had the time to notice with all their texting), but as far as genuine fear, there was very little.  The story was weak (perhaps due it the film being expanded from short format) but the acting was decent. I had hoped this would be my first favorite movie of 2013, but to be honest I was left in the cold after watching it.  For all its good moments, it still failed to illicit any serious scares and I nearly fell asleep in a few of the quieter scenes.

So while it isn't a bad film, I would have much rather waited for DVD on this one, and will be wary of del Toro's endorsements in the future, having been terribly burned on Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and getting what I would call a little brush burn with Mama.

"Mothers are all slightly insane." ~ J.D.Salinger


Doug Brunell said...

I thought this would be more flash than fear.

Christine Hadden said...

That's exactly it.