As a horror fan, some of the most terrifying material for me to sit through personally has to do with children. Children are so innocent, carefree, and immaculate that watching them come to harm is sad and frightening. Usually in horror films, children can be attacked or sometimes the attackers. Both kinds of films always creep me out a bit. But when children are in danger, that's what tugs at my heart strings the most. Even more now that I have a job teaching and playing with 5 year old's everyday.
"Mama" is a tense and effective little horror film. Its a horror movie that doesn't feel like a major studio release, but from another country or a smaller market film. It's a piercing look at how dangerous being a child can be, how you are the most vulnerable your whole life when your very young. I felt the movie was very effective in the way in portrayed its ideas.
As the film opens we see a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) running into a house. He's frantic, and it seems like he maybe in some sort of trouble. He grabs his oldest daughter by the hand, quickly rushing her and her sister out of the house. "Is mommy taking me to school?" the oldest daughter asks, the man whisks away her questions quickly. Is the mom dead? Is she possessed? No one in the audience knows.
The man speeds away, nearing causing an accident. He ends up in an old cottage in the woods, something has overcome him with grief, and as he is about to murder his daughter...something dark and spirit-like breaks his back. Its a powerful introduction with powerful imagery. I found the opening to be quite effective.
Five years after, the mans twin brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) has been hard at work searching for his long, lost nieces. After much search and devotion, a friend of his tracks them down, except they don't seem like regular children, they are primal, animal, walking on all fours. Its interesting character work. You got to give the girls (Megan Carpenter and Isabelle Nelisse) mad credit for being so innocently creepy throughout the whole film. Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (portrayed stunningly by Jessica Chastain) fall under the care of the children, and the little girls bring very troublesome events along with them.
Jessica Chastain is an actress that had me at hello. She has already had a huge career in just a few short years, and her work here is pretty good. Its a performance that is better than it needs to be in movies like this. Even as the material becomes cliche horror, she milks the most out of her character. Annabel is independent and emo, its quite the transformation from how we usually perceive Chastain. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also does fine work as a uncle-turned father, but due to a accident early in the film, we don't see much of his character. He does good work though to make his small character matter. As I stated above, the girls are great at what they do and I hope to see more of them in years to come.
One thing I was impressed with was the special effects work in the film. Too many times before, CGI work gets shoehorned into horror films and the end result is somewhat cartoonish. I have to say though, that the special effects work here is chilling and impeccable. There are some great "boo" scares that really throttled me backward and I was very intrigued how realistic it all seemed.
Like I already said though, there are a couple of cliches one would typically find in horror films, but this story is so unique that I felt I could let them slide. What was amazing is how the ending in particular is handled. Too many times in horror, the crew will speed towards a happy ending. However, the great horror films of our time usually came to two types of conclusions. There was either a hard-won happy ending or a bleak, black ending. "Mama" seems to be leaning towards the latter. It's not jet-black, but there is a touch of grey at the end which kind of made my heart sink. I give the crew credit for never holding back on its story, especially when kids are involved.
Guillermo Del Toro served as executive producer on this film, and you can definitely some inspiration from his own films. Right now I am even more excited to see "Pacific Rim" later this summer. The film was written and directed by newcomer Andy Muschietti and I think this is a pretty decent beginning. I hope to see more from this seemingly creative artist.
FINAL GRADE: B+