Friday, January 25, 2013

Mama (2013)

If a horror film’s story is strong enough, then there is no need for it to resort to the ‘cheap scream’ technique used to manipulate the audience.  A loud, closing door during a quiet period will elicit the cheap scream as will a figure walking by a window with a sudden, shrieking violin.  There is no earthly reason for a piercing violin to sound in the real world, but the director employs this trick to make the audience jump when his story is not quite up to scratch.  Remember two great horror films, Jaws and Pan’s Labyrinth.  Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro respectively used zero cheap scream tricks because these two stories shocked their audiences by themselves without having to rely on shady editing techniques. 
Mama, on the other hand, has the shell of a strong story but is underwritten.  Therefore, director Andres Muschietti uses most of the tricks in the book to make the audience jump.  Doors slam, lights decide on their own to flicker and blink revealing a hint of a supernatural presence with the requisite violin shriek, and screams accompany people waking up from dream sequences even though nobody actually screams.  A horror film is supposed to scare the audience and make them jump every now and again, but it is telling on how exactly it goes about doing it.  Mama uses cheap screams instead of story.
The recent recession causes daddy to kill some co-workers and mommy.  Escaping town with his two daughters, Victoria and Lily, they stumble upon a forgotten log cabin deep in the woods where daddy attempts to kill his daughters but gets taken out by ‘mama’ first.  Who/what is Mama?  She/it floats, contorts her joints, and makes guttural clicking noises while keeping the girls alive for the next five years until they are found living like feral cats and taken away to go live with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
Annabel makes it frequently clear she “did not sign up for this.”  She plays bass in a rock band, wears way too much eyeliner, and has too many deliberately-placed tears in her tight jeans.  She is saddled with taking care of the girls by herself quite soon after they move in because Lucas has an unfortunate run-in with Mama and spends a good chuck of the film in a coma.  The girls, 8 year old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6 year old Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) occupy different parts of the wild animal spectrum.  Victoria remembers how to speak a little bit and interact with other humans at a basic level, but Lily was one year old when she was taken to the cabin.  She does not speak, sleeps on the floor under the bed, and prefers to walk on all fours like a dog.    
Mama follows the girls to their new home, oh, and Mama gets jealous.  In between scenes where Annabel hears strange sounds and suspicious thuds, more and more of Mama’s backstory is revealed.  This should be the film’s meat and potatoes and what could have made it an almost good movie.  If Muschietti wrote a scene or two more and strengthened this part of the plot, Mama would be so much stronger.  As it is, he falls back on spooky sounds, dark lighting, and the occasional maiming/death when someone ventures too close to discovering Mama. 

Some folks are confusing Mama as a Guillermo del Toro film; he is only the Executive Producer and neither wrote nor directed it.  He does het top-billing; however, with the title, "Guillermo del Toro presents..."  That is usually a harbinger of a second-rate genre film.  Think of the times you have seen "Quentin Tarantino presents..."  If movie poster and credit titles told the truth, it would say, "Guillermo del Toro present a second-rate horror film which kind of liked but chose not to direct himself because it is not up to his caliber of work."  Guillermo del Toro saw what the audience will see, all tricks and no story.

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