A film as cliché ridden as Mama (2013), the new horror / thriller from director Andrés Muschietti and executive producer Guillermo del Toro, really does not deserve to be fun. However this tale of haunted cabins, orphaned children and malevolent spirits starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse is an unexpected anomaly – as much a pleasant surprise, as the fact that it still manages to pique your interest despite being full of predictable, old-school shocks. Following the death of their parents orphan sisters Victoria (Charpentier) and Lilly (Nélisse) are left to fend for themselves in the woods of rural America. Refusing to stop looking for his nieces, the girl’s uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) along with his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) find them after a five year search. Taking the girls back to civilisation Lucas and Annabel work hard to integrate the children back into the local community. However Victoria and Lilly were watched over by someone or something during their time in the wilds, and whatever it was has now followed them to their new home. Mama is a film which wins with style over substance. Everything you’d expect from a ho-hum horror film is here in spades. Orphaned children cast upon relations, who really have no wish to see them more often than at the obligatory seasonal holiday celebrations. Abandoned cabins deep within the woodlands of outback America which any normal individual wouldn’t venture into even if their life depended on it. Houses in which the inhabitants appear to live in a perpetual state of semi-darkness – haven’t these people heard of things called light switches, usually located on the wall just inside the door of a room? And of course the obligatory nasty individual who insists going into the said darkened house when everything is screaming at them not to – though considering this character really is an unpleasant piece of work, the viewer doesn’t actually mind them coming to a sticky end. Where a lesser film might have drowned in this sea of trite and hackneyed genre staples, Mama approaches the whole thing lightly enough, yet with just the right degree of seriousness, that it manages to make you believe and feel for the characters and the predicament in which they find themselves. Del Toro’s influence on the proceedings (even if minimal) is clear, as they unfold with such gothic style and panache that any shortcomings are soon lost within an air of seeping disquiet and menace. Couple this with enough shocks – including a spectacular car crash which will literally have you jumping off the edge of your seat – which are guaranteed to induce screams from all but the most jaded horror buff, and the result though by no means a masterpiece, is certainly a cut above much currently offered up in the name of cinematic horror. Chastain is marvellous as one half of the young couple who suddenly have a ready made family thrust upon them from nowhere, with a palpable sense of mounting frustration and despair at her bewildering predicament. However it is Nélisse’s performance as Lilly, the younger of the two orphaned sisters, which is truly astounding. Such power and feeling from one so young is mesmeric, and Nélisse’s career will undoubtedly be one to watch closely as it develops in the coming years. The biggest disappointment with the film is the final denouement, as any of the tension achieved up to this stage is lessened by the climatic manifestation of the source behind the sinister goings on which have haunted the film. If only those in charge had followed the old adage that ‘less is more’, what ended as a spirited chiller could have finished a classic.
DIRECTOR: ANDRÉS MOSCHIETTI
WRITERS: NEAL CROSS, ANDRÉS MOSCHIETTI, BARBARA MOSCHIETTI
STARS: JESSICA CHASTAIN, NICOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU, MORGAN MCGARRY, MEGAN CHARPENTIER, DANIEL KASH, JANE MOFFETT
RUNTIME: 100 MIN
COUNTRY: SPAIN, CANADA