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Movie Review: The Creepy, Spooky MAMA Is a Good Horror Movie and a Disappointing Drama

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If you\’re only in the mood for a scary, moderately disturbing horror movie, then Andy and Barbara Muschietti\’s Mama more than fits the bill.  A dark fairy tale about the unhinged, menacing spirit that takes a maternal interest in two sisters (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse), Mama provides consistent thrills for all of its 100-minute runtime.  Muschietti has a flair for suggesting maximum terror with minimum resources, and some of the film\’s best moments unfold in long, static shots; one scene, in particular, where a game of tug-of-war between the two sisters slowly grows insidious, feels like a shot stolen from the great ghost story that Michael Haneke never made.

And though her CGI embellishments get to be a bit much by the finale, “Mama” herself is a frightening villain – the performance artist Javier Botet gives the character a spindly, impossible grace that looks digital but is mostly practical.  Even the many jump scares aren\’t too contrived.  As Tasha Robinson at the Onion AV Club wrote, whenever something darts into the frame unexpectedly, it\’s usually something that poses a legitimate threat to the characters.

The problem is, there\’s a disconnect between the scares and the ambitions of the filmmakers.  See, Mama comes branded with the imprimatur of Guillermo Del Toro, the Academy Award-nominated creator of such socially and emotionally resonant chillers as The Devil\’s Backbone and Pan\’s Labyrinth, and his touch is evident in Mama\’s loftier goals.  The film begins firmly ensconced in the troubles of the now: an investment banker (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in the first of his two roles) snaps in the immediate wake of the 2008 financial crisis, kills his partners and his wife, and is about to do likewise to his daughters before the titular spirit stops him.

And the psychological drama doesn\’t stop there!  A psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) tries to reintegrate the girls into society after investigators find them living in the woods – they are feral, mute, barely human.  The banker\’s twin brother (Coster-Waldau again, natch) struggles to provide for the girls while suffering nascent guilt from his sibling\’s actions.  His slacker girlfriend (the great Jessica Chastain) pushes back against the (newfound) responsibility of caring for children.

Even Mama has a tragic backstory.  In the film\’s best setpiece, which Muschietti stages like some ghoulish conflagration of Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and John Carpenter, Chastain gets a POV look at the events that shaped the demon\’s psychopathy, and the reasons are way more Helen Keller than Jason Voorhees.

The template, obviously, is the Del Toro-produced, Juan Antonio Bayona-directed thriller The Orphanage, which mined a mother\’s grief over her missing son for supernatural horror.  But Bayona and Del Toro approached that film as a domestic drama where the scares grew naturally from the most painful emotions; Mama pings back and forth between drama and horror so fast that we realize it has no idea what the hell it wants to be.  One minute, Chastain is silently resentful of her young charges, and the next, Mama is attacking a hapless victim through strobing light flashes.

It doesn\’t help that the dramatics are so uneven.  Coster-Waldau and Chastain are terrific as the newly minted surrogate parents; Chastain, in particular, is as good here as she was in Take Shelter, The Help, and Zero Dark Thirty – she doesn\’t approach the part as a genre lark.  But Charpentier and Nélisse are much less interesting when they start to talk, and Daniel Kash is horrible as the psychiatrist.  He\’s an unappealing, unsympathetic presence, and his only function is to relay exposition that would seem ludicrous in a standard episode of “Supernatural” and then die violently.  Kash\’s character is indicative of the larger problems within the script (which the Muschiettis wrote alongside Neil Cross).  Too often, it trades in ambiguity and psychology for cheap twists and frustrating internal logic.

I mean, I\’ve seen the film twice, and I can\’t still tell you why the house where Mama is first found matters so much, or (SPOILER ALERT) when she developed the ability to possess living individuals, or why other dead spirits appear periodically to give the heroes conveniently timed information.  Del Toro might call it “fairy tale” logic, but I call it “making it up as you go along,” and even the gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Antonio Riestra) and sharply timed scares can\’t hide that fact.  I wanted more from Mama.  Hell, the movie wants more from itself, yet it can\’t quite transcend its shock-a-block leanings.  Understand that going in, and you\’ll save yourself the disappointment I felt.

The AV quality on Universal\’s Blu-ray is pretty flawless, though.  This is a dark movie, visually, yet the HD image handles the different light gradations with aplomb.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track cleanly differentiates between the loud shocks and quiet noises.

In terms of features, we get a great commentary with the Muschiettis; sixteen minutes worth of behind-the-scenes featurettes (“The Birth of Mama” and “Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama”); six deleted scenes with optional commentary; and the original short that inspired the final feature.  In some ways, the short offers a more concentrated, unnerving jolt that the full-length film, and the Muschiettis are on board for another commentary to discuss it.

Mama streets on May 7th.  Click HERE for Amazon\’s listing.