DVD Release Date: May 7, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: January 18, 2013
Rating: PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
Genre: Horror
Run Time: 100 min.
Director: Andres Muschietti
Actors: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash

"A mother’s love is forever," reads the tagline for Mama, the new film from first-time director Andres Muschietti and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth). That idea has always been a distortion—there’s only One whose love is forever (Psalms 100:5)—but it has been broadly accepted as descriptive of the strength of the mother-child bond.

However, what happens when the mother’s love is misplaced or disordered? It’s an interesting question that is given sketchy treatment in Mama. Still, this uneven film gets credit for an over-the-top finale that’s more concerned with pathos than panic. Mama’s conclusion wants to tap your tears as much as it wants to tap your fears. The attempt will leave you with a sense of begrudging respect, although it probably won’t leave you satisfied.

After an emotionally disturbed father kidnaps daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) and crashes the family car, the trio takes refuge in a cabin in the woods. There are no human inhabitants in the cabin—at least no living inhabitants. But there is someone, or something, in the cabin, and she wants to protect Victoria and Lilly from their unstable father (who’s quickly dispatched), and from the wider world.

Years later, the girls are found, feral but still alive in the cabin. How have they survived on their own for so long? Maybe they haven’t been living alone, exactly.

With their father and mother no longer alive, the girls’ uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), determines to raise the girls as his own. Lucas’ girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), a bassist in a rock band, isn’t quite up to playing surrogate mother to the girls at first, but once she commits, she’s all in. That’s all the more the case after Lucas encounters Mama and ends up in a coma, leaving Chastain to carry the acting load for most of the story. That turns out to be a good thing, as Chastain struts her stuff as a low-rent rock queen with a slow-to-develop motherly streak.

Much of Mama is old-fashioned in its approach to chills and scares, keeping the title character largely off-screen. Shadows, strange noises and seeping, discolored walls disguise Mama until well into the film. That approach proves more effective than the full reveal of Mama, whose other-worldly countenance is more distracting than terrifying.

Because the filmmakers have chosen to hide Mama for so much of the story, the full visual of her late in the film is fair game for criticism. But Muschietti is more intent on wringing tears than terror from the audience. During the finale of Mama, he unashamedly pulls heartstrings as much as he causes hearts to race in fear. It’s an odd but unique combination, worthy of admiration, even if it works too hard to wrest emotion from the audience. After the low-key horror that precedes it, the story’s conclusion is a bit much. But the filmmakers deserve credit for at least trying something different with Mama, even if it’s not altogether successful.

If only the entire film had matched the story’s wild finale. Muschietti, working with first-time feature writer (and sibling) Barbara Muschietti and veteran scripter Neil Cross (whose previous work as a writer is mostly for TV shows Luther and MI-5), has crafted a story with too many lulls and only a few unexpected surprises, until its closing moments. Ultimately, the film is not scary enough often enough, despite some strong moments.

Chastain has been in several high-profile, awards-caliber films recently, so Mama might seem like a strange career move. Her performance as a woman who discovers she has a strong mothering instinct is nowhere near the top of her recent acclaimed performances, but it helps the film rather than hurting it. Would that the same could be said for Coster-Waldau, who, through no fault of his own, spends most of the movie in a hospital bed. His character recovers in time for the film’s climax, but he remains largely an afterthought throughout the story. Jane Moffat and Daniel Kash provide amusing support as adults with professional and personal interests in the future of Victoria and Lilly. We know they’re more likely to end up as Mama’s victims than the girls’ saviors, but the film perks up whenever the actors appear.

Last year’s Sinister was the best horror film in many a moon, and Mama producer del Toro has shown a knack for the genre over most of his career. So hopes were high that Mama would further fuel a resurgence in ghost stories driven more by atmosphere than by gore. Mama turns out to be, if not a move forward in that direction, at least not a step backward. It’s more of a side step. Maybe, in hindsight, it will look like a more substantial work, but for now, the best that can be said for it is that it isn’t terrible, and that its blend of scares and sorrow sets it apart. That’s faint praise, but it’s praise nonetheless.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; the “f”-word; various obscenities
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Men drink from unmarked bottles; beer drinking
  • Sex/Nudity: Annabel kisses Lucas in bed; a man urinates; cleavage
  • Violence/Crime: Sound of a gunshot, and killing of a woman is implied; father kidnaps his daughters and holds a loaded gun to the head of one; a car accident; a man falls head-first onto a staircase; a nun is stabbed and a baby taken from her; a woman jumps from a great distance while holding her child; characters are attacked by Mama; a body floats in the water; skeletal remains
  • Religion: A woman says she’s never been a religious person; discussion of ghosts and unburied corpses

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: January 18, 2013