CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: MAMA (2013)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A cabin in the woods. L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA arrive in the middle of the night. There’s no electricity, so they have to turn on flashlights)
LS: Remind me to come here when there’s daylight next time.
MA: That would be too easy, and smart. Unlike the characters in today’s movie MAMA, who continually show up at the mysterious cabin in the film at night, and when there’s no power. Dumb!
LS: It’s just bad writing. Why not just stay at a motel until daytime?
MA: So why don’t you save your flashlight batteries and start our review of MAMA?
LS (shuts off the flashlight): Okie doke. They’re promoting MAMA with a heavy reliance on Guillermo del Toro, but he didn’t direct it, he produced it. Andres Muschietti directed this one, based on his three-minute short film of the same name (if you’re curious, check out the short film here on Youtube) Del Toro has said that when he saw the short, he had to help Muschietti turn it into a feature, and rightly so. The short film is just one short scene where two young girls are visited by “Mama,” but it’s spooky enough so that you want to see more.
MA: Yes, in spite of the fact that we started this column poking fun at the stupidity of characters visiting places in the dark, MAMA is quite creepy and certainly satisfies in the spooky department.
LS: Let’s go outside. It’s too dark in here, and the moon is up.
(As they go outside, LS continues talking)
LS: The expanded movie delves into more weird stuff. First off, we see a guy named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays Jaime Lannister, one of my favorite characters on the HBO series GAME OF THRONES), who has just come home after going on a shooting spree at work (and we’re told he just killed his ex-wife as well). He grabs his two young daughters and hightails it out of town, but a car accident cuts his plans short. After crashing into a ditch, Jeffrey takes the girls into the woods, until they find a seemingly abandoned cabin. He brings them inside, intent on killing them and himself to put an end to the nightmare his life has become. But something intervenes and saves the girls from his madness.
MA: I really liked this opening scene, and it set the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. Its sets up a relationship between Mama and the little girls that makes this one a more credible ghost story than most.
LS: We then jump ahead five years. Some private detectives (they look more like hillbillies) have been searching for Jeffrey and the girls and come across the cabin. How it took five years for anyone to find the crashed car or the cabin confounds me! You know that the police must have searched the area thoroughly when Jeffrey was originally on the run with the kids. So why did it take five years for someone to track them down?
MA: Agreed. While it’s incredibly difficult to locate a body in a vast expanse of woods, it makes less sense for a car to remain hidden for that long, especially when it’s in the open. You’d think a plane or a helicopter flying overhead would have spotted it at least.
LS: Didn’t you just get through saying this story was more credible than most?
MA: I was talking about the actual ghost’s story. Most of the time, I’m thinking, why does the ghost care about scaring these people? In MAMA, I understood Mama’s motives completely, and it made her actions all the more potent.
LS: Fair enough. So those hillbilly detectives find that the girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who have reverted to a feral state after being abandoned for so long. Victoria remembers basic skills she learned as a younger child (like she starts talking again fairly soon after their rescue), but Lilly is more feral than civilized and constantly hides behind her sister, afraid of the world.
MA: I thought these early scenes of the girls in this feral state were particularly creepy and unnerving.
LS: Yeah, they’re pretty great. I almost wish we could have seen more of them in this state.
(Two filthy, feral little girls in clean white dresses suddenly appear near them.)
MA: Uh-oh. I’m getting creeped out here.
LS: Don’t be a wuss. They’re just little kids.
LITTLE GIRL: Pa-pa.
MA: No, I think you’re supposed to say “Mama.”
LITTLE GIRL (kicks MA in the knee): Papa!
MA: Okay, okay! Papa it is. Ouch! That was some kick!
LS (laughing): I like this little kid.
Anyway, back to the movie.
The girls are taken in by their uncle Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) an artist, and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, who we also saw in everything from THE TREE OF LIFE, 2011, to THE HELP, 2011, to ZERO DARK THIRTY, 2012), who plays bass in a punk band. They’re not exactly the most orthodox couple to take in troubled kids, but it’s either that or they go to their Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat, who also does the voice of Mama!), and Lucas obviously feels guilty about what the girls have gone through and wants to make things right.
MA: I liked this part of the story as well, that Lucas and Annabel are such an unorthodox couple to care for a pair of kids. They’re not cut out to care for healthy and well balanced children, let alone these kids! In fact, in Annabel’s first scene, she’s taking a home pregnancy test and rejoices that she’s not pregnant.
This set-up was more original than most, and the movie is better for it.
LS: But it’s not going to be easy. Victoria and Lilly regressed to a very primal state while they were left to fend for themselves, and it’s going to be a long journey back to a normal life. On top of that, there’s Mama. A supernatural creature who took care of them all those years in the cabin and who visits them frequently in Lucas’s house. The thing is, Mama is incredibly dangerous to everyone but the two girls.
LITTLE GIRL: Pa-pa.
LS: You talking to me?
LITTLE GIRL: Pa-pa.
LS: No, I’m not your papa, kid. Scram, you’re starting to bother me!
(Little Girl kicks LS in knee.)
LS (howling in pain): If you weren’t a little kid, I’d take a hatchet and—.!
MA: Hey, kids, I think you’ll find some really yummy candy in that cabin over there. Why don’t you check it out?
(Little girls nod, join arms and skip towards cabin, but not before the second little girl kicks MA in his other knee.)
MA (grimacing): Son of a bitch!
(Little girls exit)
LS: Let’s finish this review and get out of here before those brats come back.
MA: Sounds good to me.
LS: When Lucas has an “accident” and falls down a flight of stairs , Annabel has to care for the girls by herself. Slowly, she bonds with them, but this incurs the ire of the very jealous Mama, who doesn’t want anyone else taking care of the girls.
Throughout the movie, there are various scenes where Annabel comes very close to “meeting” Mama, but the movie holds off their meeting for a while. In fact, in one chilling scene, Annabel knows there is something in the girls’ closet, but when Victoria warns her not to go in there, she actually closes the slightly open door and walks away (finally, someone in a horror movie who’s not an idiot).
MA (Applauds): Bravo!
LS: Trying to help discover the truth is Dr. Dreyfus (Daniel Kash) who is the one who arranges for Lucas and Annabel to get custody of the girls, so they’ll stay close by and he can continue to get access to monitoring them on a regular basis for his research.
MAMA has some legitimate scares, and I liked it. At times, it reminded me of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies—the way you need to pay attention to things going on in the background, etc. It also reminded me a bit of THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), the way we’re constantly subjected to sudden scares by a creepy female ghost with issues about children. While I thought WOMAN IN BLACK was okay, it could have been better. And I think MAMA works a lot better.
MA: I’m glad you mentioned PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. I saw MAMA in a packed theater with a very enthusiastic audience. There was lots of loud screaming and plenty of nervous jokes, like the obvious “Why does everyone keep going to these places at night?” and “Wait till daylight, numb nuts!”, and so the experience reminded me a lot of watching a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie. Granted, a lot of what they were screaming at, I wasn’t, but it still made for a really fun time.
LS: My audience was similar, and it did add to the fun.
MA: I liked this one a lot too.
LS: My only issue is about the monster. As long as she’s in the background and the shadows, she’s really effective, but Mama looks a little hokey when we finally get a good look at her, up close. She’s a CGI creation (of course), and it’s funny, but she just seemed scarier to me in the “Mama” short film that preceded this one, even though the short obviously had a much smaller budget. She’s not awful in close-up in the movie– she’s still better than most CGI monsters – but I was hoping she’d be even creepier.
MA: Really? I liked the way Mama looked. Sure, she’s CGI, but I thought she looked more real than most CGI effects. I thought she resembled a rotting corpse come back to life. What I liked about it is I took her rotting self to be symbolic of the pain she felt over the loss of her child. There was a sadness to her appearance throughout that really worked for me. So, I can’t say that I was disappointed with Mama herself. I thought she was an effective and very haunting spirit.
LS: Like the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films there were a lot of scenes where things (in this case Mama or the kids) suddenly pop up in the background or jump at us. While this works in the scare department (like we were saying, a lot of people in the audience I saw this with were shouting whenever a “scare” happened), it seems to be a cheap way to get scares after a while.
MA: Yep, that’s when my audience was screaming as well. I agree with you about it being a cheap way to get scares, but in this case, it seemed to work. One thing I did like about it was most of the time it wasn’t a “false” scare, like having someone other than the ghost bump into a character and spook them. I really hate those kinds of scares. Mama seemed to have exclusive rights scaring folks in this one, and she’s damn good at it!
Of course, the little girls did some of the frightening too, especially early on, but they were pretty darn creepy as well!
LS: I do think the acting is very good, though. Jessica Chastain is obviously meant to be the lead here, and she does a fine job as a woman out of her element (as Michael mentioned, when we first see her, she’s relieved that she isn’t pregnant, then, suddenly, two strange children are thrust upon her). I really like her as an actress, and it’s cool to see her in a horror movie. She’s just fine here.
MA: Yes, I liked Jessica Chastain a lot. Annabel is actually a pretty well-written character, and Chastain makes her believable as hell. I found it so refreshing in a movie like this that she wasn’t a “doting” mother type. She wanted nothing to do with these kids, so as the movie goes on and the bond between them grows, it really works.
LS: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is good as Lucas (and, briefly in the beginning, Jeffrey), even if he’s not given as much to do. Annabelle is clearly the more compelling character of the two, which is confirmed when Lucas is taken out of commission and she has to take care of the kids herself.
MA: Coster-Waldau was okay, although truth be told I had difficulty recognizing when he was in a coma and when he was out of one.
LS: Ouch! That’s harsh! But you’re right.
MA: He was all right, but the character of Uncle Lucas is nothing compared to Annabelle. He could have stayed in a coma and I wouldn’t have cared.
LS: Agreed. Daniel Kash is also very good as the not-so-trustworthy Dr. Drefus, who has his own agenda.
But the best acting actually comes from the kids.
MA: Agreed, although I enjoyed Jessica Chastain just as much as the two girls.
LS: You’re right, Chastain holds her own. But we already know she’s good. The kids are a revelation.
Megan Charpentier as Victoria seems wise beyond her years and is very mature and controlled as her character. I was very impressed with her performance. Isabelle Nelisse, who plays the younger Lilly, is actually very spooky in several scenes, and downright unnerving. I was even more impressed by her, even though she doesn’t say a lot and does most of her acting with her behavior and facial expressions.
MA: You got that right! And she’s such cute little kid, too! Yet she’s so creepy! I think director Andres Muschietti deserves credit for capturing this very dark side of her.
LS: Both girls do a remarkable job here and are way above the average kid actors we see in movies. I think they’re a big part of why MAMA works as well as it does.
The direction by Andres Muschietti is quite good, and the script by Muschietti and his sister Barbara (and Neil Cross) is pretty solid for this kind of thing. And it doesn’t completely fall apart at the end (it falters slightly, but doesn’t fall apart).
Usually January is when studios put out movies that they’re not so proud of, but there’s no reason why anyone should feel that way about MAMA. I liked this movie a lot and give it three and a half knives.
What did you think, Michael?
MA: I’m with you on this one. I liked MAMA a lot, and I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did.
To me, it starts with the script by Neil Cross, director Andres Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti. Its story was more intelligent than most, and other than having people visit places in the dark when they could just as easily visit them in daylight, I didn’t find myself scratching my head at the proceedings all that much.
I liked the background story of Mama herself, felt sympathy for her, and understood where she was coming from when she was being so possessive of the little girls. I also really enjoyed the story of the little girls. Their lives begin so tragically I couldn’t help but feel for them as their story continued.
And Annabel and Lucas are such an unconventional couple for this kind of tale they were definitely refreshing. I enjoyed Jessica Chastain’s performance a lot as Annabel, and she along with the two little girls really drive this movie along.
But the most satisfying part of MAMA is that it succeeds in being scary, and I think director Andres Muschietti deserves a lot of credit for crafting such an effective horror movie.
The film contains your standard “someone-appears-out-of-nowhere” jolt scenes, along with some creepy little kid scenes, and best of all, some genuinely scary supernatural ghost scenes which I thought looked better than most CGI stuff I see.
I did think the film faltered a bit towards the end, which seemed rushed. How Annabel and Lucas end up together at the cabin in the woods (hmm, that has a nice ring to it!) is a bit of a stretch – I mean, he’s still in the hospital, and suddenly he just gets up and leaves, heads for the cabin, and just happens to be crossing the road just as Annabel approaches in her car.
Also, I wasn’t crazy about the look of the film near the end, as the woods take on a very cartoonish Tim Burton air.
However, I did like the very end of the movie, and I found it satisfying. It also stayed true to the rest of the story. There weren’t any “I’m an evil ghost so I’ll just kill everybody for no reason” or “The main characters have done right by me and so now my heart has just grown ten sizes bigger and now I’m going to give everyone a big hug” moments. Mama’s behavior remains consistent throughout.
Sure, there were a few flaws here and there, most notably towards the end, but I found myself liking MAMA a lot. I liked it just a tad less than you did, though.
I give it three knives.
LS: Well, that wraps things up for another edition of Cinema Knife Fight. We’ll see you next week with another review of—-.
MA: Uh-oh. They’re coming back. Look!
(The little girls return.)
OLDER GIRL: There wasn’t any candy in that cabin. You lied to us.
LITTLE GIRL: Pa-pa. (She points to behind MA & LS)
(MA and LS look behind them to see ghostly male figure standing behind them.)
PAPA (growls): Let’s go girls. It’s your weekend to be with Papa.
MA: Hmm. Even ghosts have custody issues. Who knew!
(Cabin door opens and MAMA steps out with her hands on her hips and begins scolding PAPA for being late.)
LS: Let’s get out of here before things get ugly.
MA: I hope this isn’t a set up for a sequel, PAPA.
LS: Quiet! Don’t give them any ideas!
© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives MAMA ~ three knives!
LL Soares gives MAMA ~three and a half knives.