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[Universal Pictures]

[US release Jan 18, 2013]

Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse

The Guillermo del Toro produced Mama, while not expressly innovative or groundbreaking, represents one of horror’s greatest strengths as a self-aware genre: intertextuality. In his first feature film, Muschietti, taking cues from numerous iconic cinematic moments, crafts a fairly effective whimsical and spooky narrative that details the disappearance, retrieval, and reintegration of two small girls who have spent five years in the wilderness. Once the girls are found and taken in by their hipster uncle and his reluctant punk girlfriend (a virtually unrecognizable and tattooed Jessica Chastain), predictably odd occurrences become the norm around the new family: lights flicker, weird sounds emerge from heating vents, the children appear preoccupied with invisible friends who have seemingly followed them from the cabin where they sought shelter alone for so long. All standard fare for the seasoned ghost story veteran, yet it is del Toro’s touch and Muschietti’s obvious gifts as a director that save the film from being another complete throwaway mid winter horror film, despite its many weaknesses.

The movie, which begins with the title screen “once upon a time,” initially positions itself as greatly indebted to the macabre tales of the Brothers Grimm, as much of its structure depends on the viewer’s belief in and insistence on fairy tale structure and conventions. There is child abandonment, magical objects (Victoria’s glasses, which function as a beautiful attention to detail on the part of Muschietti), distressed mothers, ghosts, and journeys marked by tests. However, as the film moves forward, it becomes less and less invested in these and begins to rely on conventional archetypes such as “the scientific expert who is a skeptic,” “the wise archivist/local authority on legends involving mad women,” and most importantly (and troublesome), “the apprehensive mother.” It is this disjointedness that ruins the film and transforms it from a basic, yet smart adult fairy tale to a mediocre reworking of some of the more innovative and interesting American J horror remakes such as The Ring, Shutter, and The Grudge.

Chastain’s strengths are clearly oriented in more comedic roles as in her Oscar nominated performance in 2011’s The Help and she struggles to carry her central role in the film, particularly once Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s character (the devoted uncle) fades into the background. Her acting, which sparkled in The Help, disappointingly falls flat in Mama, despite many opportunities to shine. The child actors, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, prove themselves as the true stars of the movie; their performances are scary, realistic, and complex. In fact, the film’s scariest moments do not lie in its supernatural nodding but in the instances that deal with the mere practicalities of the children being abandoned in the woods at the ages of five and one, respectively. In other words, the children scamper around on all fours, are filthy, and possess gymnast-like agility that allows them to sit atop refrigerators and other unexpected places due to their isolation during crucial developmental stages. Muschietti takes full advantage of the shock value of this and implements it throughout, but it is arguably most jarring in the film’s first act when we first encounter the children, which is its strongest section due to the heavy handed and careful fairy tale imagery and narrativity.

Not original or surprising by any means, Mama offers plenty of the delightfully comforting jump scenes one would expect in a supernatural horror film. This reworking of classic motifs remains one of the primary positives of the movie in addition to the waving of the del Toro magic wand that injects the film with its fairy tale whimsy. Mama speaks to the constantly self-referential nature of horror, which is indeed what creates horror in the first place: the common nightmares formed through mythology and collective cultural memories of trauma. It is unfortunate that the execution of this does not leap beyond mediocrity, especially given del Toro’s clear influence, as the film has many chances to become something greater than a reproduction of the cliches we know and love, iced with a promising initial thirty or so minutes. Muschietti definitely will be a director to watch; his talent and attention to style swells and struggles through the unimpressive narrative, a rare feat, and that alone was worth the price of cinema admission.