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Mama (2013)

Maternity Suit

Horror filmmakers have a friend in Guillermo del Toro. It would be enough for him to inspire genre fans every few years with bizarre little masterpieces like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, but he also uses his clout to get other people's passion projects off the ground. Granted, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was garbage, and I didn't see The Orphanage, but the movies he produces always look like they could take place in the universe he established. That's definitely the case with Andrés Muschietti's Mama, which alternately suffers and soars under the del Toro brand name.

The film stars Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Annabel and Lucas, a Virginia couple struggling to live the rebel artist lifestyle well into their thirties--she as a drummer in a punk band, he as an illustrator. One afternoon, Lucas is informed that his twin brother Jeffrey has gone missing with his two young daughters; this after murdering several co-workers and then the girls' mother, apparently due to stress from the financial crisis. Five years later, the girls turn up in a wooded cabin, with no dad in sight and exhibiting the feral behavior of wild animals.

Lucas convinces Annabel to help him raise Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse), lest they wind up as wards of the state or in the custody of their cold Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat). Kindly Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) offers the couple use of a large, hospital-funded house in exchange for the ability to study the girls' behavior. Upon moving in, the family discovers an unexpected fifth housemate: "Mama", the grouchy, misshapen spirit protector who helped the girls survive for half a decade.

Following a sufficiently nerve-wracking setup, Mama's story devolves into a ninety-five minute cliche checklist. Muschietti and co-writers Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti hit all the "creepy kid movie" mile markers, from spooky crayon drawings to doomed nosy adults to washed-out flashbacks that reveal the shocking truth about an unrestful ghost.

On the page, eighty percent of Mama is tired. In the same way that most "Based on a True Story" pictures are filtered through Hollywood's bullshit three-act-structure template until they no longer resemble relatable experiences, Muschietti helps water down his own material to the point where the final product is almost unrecognizable from the eerie short that got del Toro's attention in the first place. True, it has been grafted into the full-length movie, but the demo's spirit is mercilessly suffocated by the surrounding narrative fluff: the two-minute Mama is full of mystery and ingenuity; the feature could have been written by anyone.

The writing informs the visuals, as it should. Unfortunately, that means we must wade through the supernatural, black-goo-bleeding walls from The Apparition; the creepy, otherworldly messenger under the bridge from Absentia; and the CGI witch-monster from every other such horror movie since Regan MacNeil busted out that stupid spider-walk in The Exorcist's extended cut. As played by Javier Botet (with twitchy digital enhancements), "Mama" is alternately a horrifying specter and a sympathetic, confused beast, which makes her far more interesting to think about than to look at.

Maybe it's silly to think Mama's production designers, concept artists, and animators purposely copied the imagery from the movies I listed above. But their striking similarities suggest that either the well is running dry in movie-monster land or the studios want their quick-fix moneymakers to be as uniform and un-challenging to audiences as cans of Pepsi. Great horror movies are effective because we're just not ready for them. They are upsetting in darkly original ways and don't follow the templates of their contemporaries or predecessors. By those (very reasonable) standards, Mama is not a good horror movie.

But it's a pretty compelling drama, which is why I recommend checking it out, eventually, on home video.

Talk about a surprise, eh?

Yes, you should see Mama; just don't rush out to the theatre this weekend. Where the story and imagery fail, the performances reveal characters that might have flourished in a better screenplay. The child actors are terrific, playing shy, freaked-out kids who never come fully out of their shells. Because of trauma and abandonment, they are pure instinct and over-protective, unconditional love. On the opposite side of the coin, Annabel is the developmentally arrested child who rejoices when her pregnancy test comes up negative, and must be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of responsibility. She reluctantly becomes the nurturer, committing to something greater than free time and failing rock dreams. Chastain brings more heart and realism to this for-the-paycheck horror movie than to her Golden Globe-winning turn* in Zero Dark Thirty.

Mama's real selling point is its ending. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that I haven't left a theatre with such heartache in a long time. What begins as a by-the-numbers, put-the-demon-back-in-the-box conflict ends as one of the most depressing yet oddly touching things you're likely to see in 2013. The final moments are gut-wrenching. Just before the credits, I felt a dull ache in my jaw, which had been hanging open for two minutes.

It's here that Muschietti comes closest to making the kind of film del Toro is known for. Had he poured a tenth of that ballsiness and originality into the rest of the movie, Mama would surely have put him on the same map as his mentor. I imagine box office receipts will determine whether or not we see more of this filmmaker. On one hand, I'm game. On the other, I can't wait to see what the next artist who gets del Toro's big-league invitation has to offer.

*God is dead.

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