*** (out of 5)
January 18, 2013
Jessica Chastain as ANNABEL
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as LUCAS
Megan Charpentier as VICTORIA
Isabelle Nélisse as LILLY
Daniel Kash as DR. DREYFUSS
Javier Botet as MAMA
Jane Moffat as JEAN PODOLSKI
Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
In some ways, it seems that “Mama” is a victim of its own hype. Based on a simple but chilling three-minute short film, this modern horror production had a kick-ass trailer, a respected actress to headline it and a passionate genre producer behind it. If “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was any indicator, Guillermo del Toro’s influence on “Mama” was sure to be a positive angle to the horror tale.
But there’s a challenge in adapting a cool but scant short film into a full-length feature. We saw that happen with Shane Acker’s “9” several years ago. The original short film was visually stunning and compelling. The lack of dialogue and refusal to explain what exactly was going on was part of its charm. However, when the feature film came out, the necessity of adding character, backstory, dialogue and celebrity voices diluted its coolness to a shadow of its former self.
If you haven’t had a chance to see the original short film “Mama,” I suggest you do so. It’s only three minutes long, and it is exceedingly simple. It really only hints at the creepiness and scares you’ll see in the feature.
Something happened in the translation to the big screen, however. My hunch is that this was somewhat doomed from the writing stage, considering how predictable and formulaic the story ended up being.
In the feature film, “Mama” tells the story of two young girls who go missing after their father has a psychotic break. Years later, they’re found in a cabin in the woods, gone completely feral. They’re brought back to civilization to live with their uncle and his girlfriend Anabelle (Jessica Chastain). However, it soon becomes clear that they brought something back with them, a terrifying specter that has been protecting them for years.
While it may seem that I’m pointing out a lot of flaws in the film, don’t confuse that with me not liking it. There are some great elements, too. The cinematography and production design looks fantastic. The movie manages to be dark and dreary without being murky and hard to see. It also delivers – at least most of the time – with an extremely creepy ghost reminiscent of the chilling title character from “The Grudge.”
Even Jessica Chastain, of whom I’m generally not a fan, does fine here. Her character, a live-in girlfriend who never wants kids and plays in a band, is a bit overdone, but I give it points for the writers thinking a little outside of the box and not just throwing a would-be suburban housewife in the mix.
Still, Chastain seems to be slumming it a bit too much in just a run-of-the-mill horror movie, especially considering she got an Oscar nomination for “Zero Dark Thirty” last week.
But as cool as the movie looks and as neat as some of the more horrific elements are, there are major problems. Much of this stems from the look of Mama, which is 90 percent terrifying. The other 10 percent of the time, the movie reveals too much. Similar to how the antagonists in “I Am Legend” lost their cinematic appeal by appearing too rubbery and cartoony, Mama looks like an effigy of Marilyn Manson in poorly-rendered CGI when we get too good of a look at her.
The ending of the film lacks punch, and it just doesn’t fit together as well as it should. That’s not to say the movie is a total waste, and if you’re fortunate enough to see it alone in the theater or not surrounded by talking idiots on smart phones, there’s some great cinematic moments.
Had “Mama” come out last October when it was originally scheduled to go head-to-head with “Sinister,” it would have been a mistake. As it is, it’s a perfectly acceptable slice of January horror. Believe me, you can do a lot worse.