Usuatn_mamally a director you like producing somebody else’s movie doesn’t mean much. See for example Sam Raimi. Love the guy’s directorial works, but look at the stuff he and his company produced – not necessarily the seal of quality. I’m starting to see Guillermo del Toro is different, though. I still gotta see THE ORPHANAGE, but most people seem to speak highly of it. I loved DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and now this one is pretty good. These last two are movies where he found new filmatists who had done short films and helped them to make a feature.

In this case the director is Andres Muschietti, who wrote the script with Neil Cross and his sister Barbara Muschietti. (That’s kinda cool, I don’t know of another brother-sister filmmaking team other  than the Wachowskis. And I guess Joie Lee wrote CROOKLYN.) They’re “adapting” it from their short film of MAMÁ, but I put adapted in quotes because there really isn’t a story in the short version, it’s basically just a cool shot (which is replicated in the feature version). I have no idea how del Toro figured out from that clip that this guy could direct a real movie that tells a story and has acting in it, but somehow he guessed right.

The movie begins with “once upon a time” scrawled in crayon, so we know it’s a fairy tale. It’s a PG-13 movie but opens with one of the most disturbing subject matters available: some Wall Street guy (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has snapped, killed his wife and somebody else at the office, and has now picked up his two young daughters and is driving erratically as the oldest keeps asking him what’s going on and he doesn’t answer. So those are the modern Grimm’s fairy tale subjects: stock market crashes, workplace shootings and murder-suicides involving girls 5 and under.

The fairy in this tale comes in when a car crash leads them to a mysterious cabin in the woods where the crying dad is about to do the deed and a monstrous woman in the shadows comes up behind him, snaps his neck, and feeds the girls cherries. I mean, whatever this lady is, and whatever her faults may be, we at least must acknowledge that she’s doing better parenting than the dad so far.

mp_mamaThe story of the girls growing up in the woods with Mama is told through adorable crayon drawings, and we pick up 5 years later when a private detective working for the dad’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) discovers the girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), now feral and scurrying around like animals and wearing crowns made of leaves and shit. They’re brought back to civilization, where Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) studies them and Lucas takes custody of them along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). I’m sure they tried to get Vera Farmiga, since she usually gets first dibs on the adoption horror movies, but she might’ve figured it wasn’t her thing since these are the guy’s nieces and not from an agency.

In the last couple weeks Chastain won a Golden Globe, was nominated for an Oscar and was #1 at the box office with ZERO DARK THIRTY, which moved to number two under MAMA, making her the year’s top candidate for Actor Who Gets A Bunch of Acclaim, Then Cashes in By Playing a Comic Book Character. This is no Maya but it’s a genuine lead role and not slumming. She does get to play an interesting character who’s not the typical horror heroine and also different from other ones she’s played.

Interestingly, she plays Annabel more as a tough girl than she did Maya in ZERO DARK THIRTY. She’s playing a type we haven’t seen much in pop culture lately, the Tough Rock Chick, like Joan Jett in LIGHT OF DAY or some of those all-woman rock bands they had back in the Lollapalooza days, L7 and whoever. She has short black hair, sleeve tattoos, plays bass, wears the standard issue t-shirts (Ramones, Misfits) and in case you don’t get it there’s a scene where her bandmate directly says “You’re in a rock band.” It feels a little corny to me but I accepted it because it’s an interesting character trait for the story. She doesn’t want to be a mother, doesn’t feel ready to be a mother, doesn’t want to give up her lifestyle, but also she (and we) resent it when others assume she can’t or shouldn’t be a mother because she looks like that and lives that lifestyle.

Later in the movie she wears a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas t-shirt (the Ralph Steadman art from the book, not a picture of Johnny Depp) under a very comfortable looking button-up sweater. I thought this sort of symbolized her acceptance of the mother role without giving up her personality.

The girls are at different levels of feralness. Victoria is older, she had more time to be a normal kid before moving in with Mama, so she’s able to speak and act mostly normal. But Lilly can barely talk and doesn’t seem interested in learning human ways. She draws on the walls, eats bugs and paper towels and is often giggling and playing with some unseen Mama.

The horror of the movie is that they keep talking to the walls and Annabel keeps hearing and seeing weird things, and we know this is because Mama is somehow coming to visit them. Muschietti has some clever shots, like one where Lilly is in the door playing tug-of-war with an off camera person who towers over her and has a monstrous shadow.

There are some pretty standard jump scares, but I like that the creepiness of the kids is not your garden variety Evil Kid nonsense. They don’t seem evil at all, they’re just having fun running around giggling with their mostly unseen monster adoptive mother.

Not always unseen though. This being a del Toro joint there are of course some really cool and imaginative special effects. The story doesn’t require anything PAN’S LABYRINTH fancy, but what they have is very well executed. We do eventually get a look at Mama, and to me she seems like a cross between a Deadite circa EVIL DEAD 2 and some jittery J-horror ghost. She’s played by Javier Botet, an incredibly skinny man in elaborate makeup, with long spindly fingers like E.T. My favorite effect though is at the beginning when you see Lilly scurrying around on all fours. I’m pretty sure it’s a CGI double, like the ninja acrobatics in BLADE II. However they did it’s creepy.

Annabel and the doctor start to piece together the supernatural goings on and the backstory of who Mama is. In fact, Annabel (and by extension the audience) gets to experience Mama’s traumatic past in the first person through a dream. The problem here is twofold: they gotta make sure everybody’s safe from mama, but also they gotta make the girls choose Annabel and Lucas over Mama. It’s hard, because they’re not old enough to think Annabel’s squid tattoo is cool, and they’ve had alot of time to play and have fun with Mama, and also Mama killed wolves for them according to the drawings.

I don’t think this was made in response to GHOST DAD by the way. I think in GHOST DAD the ghost was their actual dad, here the ghost becomes their mom, she is not the biological ghost mother, so it’s different. But similar. Almost the same. It’s GHOST DAD for this generation, probly.

There’s a gap between Victoria and Lilly and it’s mainly because of age, but I like the implication that Victoria’s glasses are a factor. She wore them as a little girl, lost them during the cabin years, gets a new pair when she comes back. It’s not just a symbol of civilization that she wears on her face, it literally makes her see the world differently, the way she did pre-Mama.

In DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Katie Holmes’s character becomes a reluctant mother figure when her older boyfriend’s daughter unexpectedly comes to live with them. Here Annabel plays that role, not really wanting to become mom to these two messed up girls, but doing it out of love for her boyfriend. At times she seems like kind of a bitch, but mostly she’s endearing in her refusal to pretend she’s comfortable with this. Of course, as she does start to get good at it and develop relationships with the girls it’s very touching.

That’s one unique aspect is that it addresses grown adults who don’t plan or want to have kids. You don’t really see that in alot of movies. I think it shows this as a legitimate lifestyle choice. If not for the tragedy it would’ve been fine for them to stay in their apartment and just be artists. But it’s both a horror movie and a fairy tale so it’s gonna end up being about some kind of traditional value, and parenthood is one of the classics. Lucas feels a family obligation to the girls and this leads them to their adoptive parenting. Of course Annabel is good for it but she doesn’t think she is. It’s implied that there some reason in her past why she thinks she would screw up a kid, and jokingly (but correctly) says it’s a blessing that she gets kids who are already screwed up. So even if it’s pushing traditional morals it’s at least doing it with sympathy for people like Annabel.

There’s a suburban, non rock ‘n roll playing Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) who wants to take care of the girls. It’s funny because she comes off as almost a villain, but she’s totally right: she is more financially stable than an artist and a bassist, it does seem weird that girls whose mother was murdered would go to the brother of the murderer instead of the sister of the murdered, she should be concerned about the amount of bruises she sees on Lilly, also she should be concerned about them being all dirty and crawling around like animals. But we still find ourselves rooting against her. Sorry, Aunt Jean. You didn’t deserve it.

Despite the kid friendly rating this has some definite del Toro ballsiness, not just in the ways it puts kids in peril but also in the crazy, fantastical way things end up. It makes perfect sense for the story but it’s not something I ever thought would happen. It kind of sets up a nice logical horror movie ending and then pulls the rug out and shows you something more interesting.

Speaking of expectations, if you’ve managed to not see the trailer yet I recommend avoiding it. It’s a good trailer because it keeps getting weirder as it goes along and it completely sold me on a movie that hadn’t been on my radar before. But it shows you most of the story and although I really liked it I think it’s held back a little by how often I knew where it was headed.

Do you guys know, is this the same Mama that said to knock you out? I think it probly is, but they’re pretty subtle about it.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013 at 1:18 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

36 Responses to “Mama”

  1. This is good news. PG-13 horror movies aren’t usually something I’ll spend money & time to watch in the theatre, even if it has the Guillermo del Toro producer seal of approval, but if it has the Vern seal of approval, I’ll give it a go.

    Trailers are the devil. They’re the reason I often wait til after opening weekend to see a movie, go to a weekday daytime showing when the crowds are sparse so it’s okay if I show up 15 minutes after the listed showtime, miss the advertisements & most of the trailers, and still be able to get a good seat.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I’ve heard, that weird movements of Mama weren’t achieved by CGI doubles, but by controlling the actor’s limbs like a rod puppet. I imagine the effect looking like in that Fatboy Slim video, where everybody has to dance uncontrollable, because they used the same technique there.

  3. The Mama who said to knock you out was actually LL’s grandmother, not his actual mother. His 1990 album, Walking With a Panther, was a disappointment, so she told him to “knock out” his critics for his [don’t call it a] comeback. So unless these kids also had kids (which, in this day and age, reality show, amirite, etc.) it’s probably not her.

    Also, did you guys hear about the burglar LL found in his kitchen one night, so he beat him up, broke his arm, and held him until the cops came? We can only hope that he had time to drop his catchphrase before he rained down on that fool like a monsoon.

    In conclusion, I am eager to see MAMA, though not as eager as I would be if LL was in it, possibly in the title role.

  4. Here’s another good, funny article about Mama:

    My favorite quote from it is: “Why does Mama move like a stickbug when she is the ghost of a person, not the ghost of a stickbug?”

  5. I dunno about Cool James, but I’m quite sure that Mama said there’d be days like this.

  6. The Original... Paul

    January 22nd, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Well, she also told you not to come, so what did you expect?

    (It’s gonna be a miracle if Bohemian Rhapsody is not quoted in this comments section.)

    Seriously though, this one wasn’t on my radar at all but I might check it out now. Thanks Vern.

  7. But, but, but….

    Walking with a Panther had Going Back to Cali!

  8. I really, really disliked this movie. I thought it was a cheap series of jolts with no interesting characters and a pretty rote backstory for the ghost. It never comes close to being scary and poor Chastain is wasted, given almost nothing to do. But it is slickly produced, I’ll give you that. I’m just looking for more from my horror movies than a bunch of shit jumping out at me accompanied by shrieks on the soundtrack. This movie annoyed the piss out of me. Oh well, I’m glad somebody was able to find something worth liking in it.

  9. JULIA’S EYES is another del Toro production that hews pretty close to the ORPHANAGE aesthetic. Not a bad little slow burn movie.

    Too bad about Juan Antonio Bayona’s THE IMPOSSIBLE. Exceptional special effects and make-up. The performances were good too, even Ewen McGreggor, who I usually can’t stand. But that script was so terrible.

    I am sharing this unsolicited opinion because my mama said that it’s good to be truthful.

  10. N8: Good point. That sentence should have read “Walking With A Panther was CONSIDERED a disappointment.”

  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1LOWEufAH0

    This would be perfect for a horror movie (though probably re-recorded by a lesser band).

  12. I’d like to go way off topic here and remind everyone that both the song “Mama said knock you out” and LL Cool J himself featured in the 1991 action comedy “The Hard Way” in which a great James Woods as a hard-boiled cop has to team up with Michael J. Fox as a spoiled actor researching a role. Directed by the underrated John Badham. Loved this in my teens and must have watched it a dozen times. Woods is great in it and I always considered Fox a gifted comedian. You should check it out, Vern.

    That being said, I’m looking very much forward to seeing MAMA, though it won’t hit german theatres before sometime in April.

  13. I must agree with georgekaplan13 on this one. I saw Mama at an early show yesterday evening, and it was quite disappointing. It starts out well enough, but then quickly devolves into tedium. Drawing elements from The Ring and The Blair Witch Project and then throwing in a bunch of easy-to-anticipate cliched jumpscares probably wasn’t a sound formula.

    If Del Toro has some intern program for aspiring horror movie directors… well, that’s nice; I applaud his generosity of spirit. But (to use figurative beerspeak) don’t serve me a Meisterbrau and call it a Molson Golden. Groom these youngbloods a little better next time before turning them loose, Guillermo.

    And I am officially done holding out any hope for Jessica Chastain. Fuck the Golden Globes, and maybe the AMPAAS as well. Every movie I’ve seen her in lately (this, ZDT, Lawless) she just can’t rid her performances of that Former Head Cheerleader/ Former Sorority Girl/Now A Soccer Mom sheen. She’s just (IMO) too innately polite or wan or bland or… basically inert to be convincing. In Mama, they do what I like to call “accessorizing a role”: she’s got the Joan Jett hairstyle, the Misfits t-shirt (and a Karl Marx one— oooooo look, she’s a rebel), the Peter Pan boots, the black nail polish, plus she plays bass guitar in a rock band (without looking like she has a grasp of the instrument; we get to see her rehearse briefly twice) and has a voicemail greeting of “Leave a message; fuck you”.

    But she loves and is devoted to her artist boyfriend, thus making her the Tough Yet Tender Rock Chick. I didn’t buy it for a second. You want a good representation of an actress fitting this type of role?: Fairuza Balk in Almost Famous, and she made it look effortless. Chastain seemed like she had dressed up for Halloween but got lost on the way to the costume party. In the words of Crash Davis: “Utterly fucking hopeless”.

  14. Woah, woah. You’re really going to rag on Jessica Chastain? She’s had a banner year. I was ambivalent about the quality of ZD30, but I liked her performance. She was also pretty good in Lawless. She seems to be choosing roles that purposefully break from the usually girlfriend/victim/sex object mold that most women have to choose from. Sure, they’re not all going to work, but I’ve been impressed with her (unless I’m just drinking the kool aid).

  15. Roy— Yes, she’s superbly photogenic; I’ll give her that in a heartbeat. But she always seems (to me, anyway) like she’s striving for effect. One can either ACT a character or one can BE a character (and yes, there is some wiggle room for overlap). To my observation, there’s nothing organic about her work onscreen.

    I once read an interview in Movieline magazine with Richard Gere in which he opined “Normal people shouldn’t become actors”, and I’m inclined to agree with that. Having seen Jessica Chastain (as herself and not in a movie) in various interviews, I can safely say she’s quite normal. Maybe too much so, if that’s possible.

  16. I don’t think Chastain was the problem with MAMA. I mean, they didn’t give her dick to do but that’s not her fault. I can’t really judge her as an actress since I haven’t seen ZERO DARK THIRTY yet. She was good in TREE OF LIFE I guess but I kept slipping into a coma throughout that endless bore of a movie so….. But hey, I’m a sucker for redheads.

  17. The Original... Paul

    January 24th, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Jareth – I reviewed “Julia’s eyes” in one of the Potpourris ages ago. I liked it although I thought it kinda lost it towards the end.

    For another great horror film with similar themes, see “The Pact”. Another low-budget film that’s miles, miles, miles better than the trailers would suggest.

  18. I don’t know. I either hate or love del Toro movies. All right Vern, I’m giving this one a try for you. But if you steer me wrong I’m going to be very mad at you. I won’t read your reviews for days.

  19. This movie was right up my alley.

    It violates my #1 rule of that you should show the monster as little as possible in monster movies, but gets away with it through a combination of legitimate effects, clever ideas (shadow tug of war eg), and being careful to only show you more of Mama once you’ve become more invested in her as a character.

    I saw this with a bunch of rowdy teens in the theater, but they were all rapt with attention within about 20 minutes of the film starting. The mark of a successful picture.

    The scene where they first find the feral kids in the cabin scuttling, and they assume their Battle Stance on top of the fridge was one of my favorite moments in a film in a long while.

    My controversial opinion on the movie is that it features maybe my favorite performance of Jessica Chastain (having seen this, Tree of Life, 0D30, and Take Shelter). I’m baffled by the notion that she “wasn’t given much to do”. 0Dark30 is a dry procedural where she says a lot of dialogue. In this one the dialogue doesn’t tell you as much as her look, presence, the attitude with which she holds herself, etc. Her body language when she’s sprawled, all leonine, alongside her boyfriend while he’s in the hospital bed, for example, was awesomely illustrative of her state of mind w/r/t her relationship with her man, her trepidation surrounding the girls, all that. I thought it was a superb performance.

  20. Hey Vern, have you seen the Mexican horror film WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (SOMOS LO QUE HAY)? I think you would like it. It uses cannibalism as a way to comment on class, family and tradition. It kind of reminded me of the Greek film DOGTOOTH (another good one, if you haven’t seen it).

  21. The Original... Paul

    March 17th, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation on this one, Vern. Enjoyed it a lot. Honestly I could’ve done without ever actually having SEEN Mama – if I hadn’t seen the name on the credits I would’ve assumed that she was all CGI, which is not a positive thing – but nonetheless, this was a good one for me.

    I absolutely agree with Renfield on Chastain’s performance. Thought it was way, way better than the performance she gave in “Zero Dark Thirty” (mostly because I felt Chastain had a lot more to do in “Mama” thanks to the superior script). The way her relationship develops with the two girls, in particular the scene where she blows on Lily’s hands to warm them… there’s some great work there, some of it very subtle.

  22. The Original... Paul

    March 17th, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    Oh yes, and this is another film that came out in Britain two months after it came out in America. I was hoping this kind of shit had stopped, but it seems to be getting more and more common.

  23. I’m putting this here because why not: I saw a free screening of THE CONJURING last night and it was a blast. Scariest movie I’ve seen in a minute, but with a sense of fun and gamesmanship that has people laughing between the scares. The mix of drawn-out suspense and in-your-face payoff is a lot better than James Wan’s last movie, INSIDIOUS, which was okay bot not really scary. He’s really showing some chops on this one. I’m not normally one for jump-scares but there’s one in there that made me yelp involuntarily. No movie has done that to me since THE DESCENT. I got off light, though. There was one poor girl whimpering in terror in the row behind me during the climax.

    Full disclosure: I do have a weakness for ghost movies, as they’re usually the only ones that scare me. Also, I have a personal connection to the movie because the Warrens (famous ghost-hunting duo the film is based on) came to my college every Halloween to give a presentation (Bring a date and you’re guaranteed not to sleep alone that night) and I remember them talking about a few of the incidents in the movie, which (although I don’t believe in demons or ghosts) a certain verisimilitude to the movie. So your mileage may vary on how legitimately scary you think it is, but I think you’ll agree that it’s a well-crafted old-fashioned spookfest. I highly recommend it.

  24. Thanks for the heads up Mr. M. I’ll be seeing this on friday.

    (I mean what other choices are there? I guess I might see RED 2 next week for Bruno’s sake. Apparently Ryan Reynolds will have a bad weekend with two expected duds, though I don’t see how a cartoon can lose money. R.I.P.D. on the other hand, the studio aren’t even doing press screenings. That one is a given.)

  25. “I don’t see how a cartoon can lose money”
    Tell that to the people behind EPIC and RISE OF THE GUARDIANS.

  26. I don’t know if it’s playing in your area, but ONLY GOD FORGIVES is opening on Friday in NYC on Friday so that’s what I’m seeing. I’m pissed that I missed a sneak preview at BAM last night with Refn and Gosling in attendance, but THE CONJURING was a worthy substitute.

  27. CJ – Mojo says EPIC did $240 million, which for a 100 million means it broken even at least I’m assuming.

    Interesting enough, most of TURBO’s foreign openings will happen…in October. So yeah I’ll wait before calling it a flop. But in the states, I just think MONSTERS UNIVERSITY and DESPICABLE ME 2 are still doing decent business (the latter won this past weekend) and TURBO might get run over. Plus it doesn’t help TURBO’s case that MU and DM2 both got decent reviews and audience WOM. (And they’re both decent.) We’ll see.

  28. Epic made money. Not a huge amount, but it actually did above expectations theatrically.

  29. Meanwhile, if turbo bombs, it might literally kill Dreamworks animation. The croods did very well (nic cage!!!!!) but Dreamworks animation is still in a big hole right now.

    And if ripd opens to less than thirty million, Sony will have 2 *massive* bombs this summer and might be on the auction block come fall.

    So, 2 studios are kinda hanging their entire future on Ryan Reynolds this weekend. Oops.

  30. Wait, universal is releasing ripd, not Sony. Sony already had their two massive bombs this summer. Though, smurfs 2 and grown ups 2 might save that sinking ship after after earth and White House down each turned into $100 million+ write offs.

  31. Until R.I.P.D., Universal actually had a ridiculously long box-office winning streak for over a year. (6 of its last 7 releases opened #1, the lone exception was the JURASSIC PARK re-release.)

    Tawdry – I wouldn’t say DWA is screwed if TURBO doesn’t do well. It just means they’ll have to reexamine their schedules. 2 releases a year isn’t a bad idea (Pixar will do that too soon, and Marvel is doing it too), but releasing something like TURBO after Pixar and Minions? (God knows the Minions in their own movie will do gangbusters next year.) I mean fucking CROODS (which I didn’t see so I can’t trash it) came out in the spring when there wasn’t any toons out. That usually helps.

    I guess this is a core difference between say Disney and DWA. Disney can withstand both JOHN CARTER and LONE RANGER flops, and no big deal really because of the other brands and theme parks and shit. Like stubbing a toe. DWA is its own stock, so its like old school pre-corporate empire Disney which lived and died on its theatrical releases. (Didn’t Disney almost go out of business back in the 1970s because of this?)

    Almost I just get the feeling that this summer, alot of studios really thought others would blink with their releases. But nobody did. (Except maybe KICK ASS 2 because apparently they thought MOS would destroy it.) I mean that’s the only explaination for 4 friggin releases this weekend.


  32. R.I.P.D. looks awful

  33. Seeing the criticals reactions to ONLY GOD FORGIVES has been really interesting. “Divisive” is an understatement. Caused a big backlash when it won Best Film at the Sydney Film Festival and two of Australia’s most prominent film critics, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, who mostly agree, gave it 0.5/5 and 4/5 stars. Of course Stratton got on his high horse about the extreme violence, which is usually a sign that I’ll enjoy it.

    Anyway, back to the no-doubt riveting discussion of box office takes for crappy kids films.

  34. Just caught THE CONJURING, and I have to agree with Mr. Majestyk: This is definately worth seeing.

    I’m afraid though that this movie oddly enoguh, I’ll compare to DREDD. It’s quite decent, but its a roller coaster ride and once its over, the power fades away and you realize you only have a quite decent horro mystery/thriller. But considering how most recent horror fare don’t bother or have the patience for little things like pacing and creating an atmosphere and setting up both families before they meet each other. Not once does the movie jump the shark as most recent fare that do have the gall try end up usually for me.

    Congrats James Wan, you made a John Carpenter movie that Carpenter didn’t get around to making.

  35. One thing that puzzles me is this: where did Mama get Crayola crayons for Victoria and Lillie? It’s not like she can go into Wal-Mart or Toys R’ Us and buy them! Of course, if the employees at both places saw Mama in all her scary glory crawl in, they would throw a bunch of crayons at her and let her have them for free!

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