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Mamá 2013 | 100 min | PG-13 | 1.85:1



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Theatrical release date

 18 January, 2013
 22 February, 2013

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Screenshots from Mama Blu-ray

Mama Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, January 18, 2013

It’s important to take Guillermo del Toro’s executive producer credit seriously, as “Mama” bears all the signs of his previous work. It’s a ghost tale with an almost storybook atmosphere, despite its search for forbidding areas of confrontation between the unaware and the undead. It’s spooky and weird enough to work, with a knockout resolution that maintains the story’s integrity -- the cinematic equivalent of finding a four-leaf clover. Sure, flaws are readily apparent and length is an issue, but “Mama” is after a retro atmosphere of spookiness, trusting in the art of unease. It’s skillfully made and manages to provide the willies with only a few cheap shocks, making the movie something of an anomaly in a genre that routinely amplifies its scares and pulls its punches.

After their father commits a heinous triple murder and stumbles into the woods with his children in tow, little girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) find sanctuary inside an abandoned cabin, with Mama (Hannah Cheesman), a ghostly figure, doing away with their parent, assuming control of the kids. Five years later, Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has finally found his nieces after a lengthy search, working out a deal with Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) to take custody of the now feral sisters, allowing the doctor to continue his study of their odd devotion to Mama. Not thrilled with the situation is Lucas’s girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a rock musician who’s recently delighted in the fact that she’s avoided pregnancy, now stuck with two girls in need to constant monitoring. When Lucas is sent to the hospital after a mysterious run-in with Mama, Annabel is left on her own, slowly coming to understand the evil yet maternal presence inside the house. Trying to form a routine with Victoria and Lilly, Annabel is instead tested to the limit when Mama begins to reveal herself, while Dr. Dreyfuss launches an investigation to find out exactly who the spirit was in a previous life.

“Mama” is an extension of co-writer/director Andres Muschietti’s 2008 short film, and the stretch marks are difficult to erase. In fact, “Mama” may be overwritten, with a series of subplots and character arcs that feel chopped down from their original intent, including time with Lucas’s courtroom rival, Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat), here in a secondary villain role as a concerned family member trying to wrestle custody away. Annabel is also a mystery, with her initial disdain for motherhood quickly muted once the girls arrive, with the rocker tossing away her interests and future for reasons that aren’t entirely understood, filed under “boyfriend devotion” to keep the movie on its feet. The editing is unconvincing, filled with ADR spackling and emotional dead ends, suggesting “Mama” was at one point more of a predominately character-driven picture, and those rarely make for pants-wetting entertainment.

Despite his occasional storytelling mismanagement, “Mama” is quite the debut feature for Muschietti, who shows an impressive command of mood and suspense, using Mama’s hovering movement and preference for dark corners to his advantage, creating an unnerving sense of house sharing as Annabel suffers through the daily grind of child rearing while her charges enjoy the comforts of their adopted mother, a spindly, floating ghoul (sold with macabre visual effects) who visits them from her hideout in the closet. It’s a neat arrangement of near misses and unsettling interactions, with only a few cheap aural jolts to remind the audience they’re seeing a Hollywood production. Otherwise, “Mama” has more of a European touch, investing more in unseen terrors and a stellar sound design to explore Mama’s wrath, also digging into the phantom’s past as a disturbed woman who once endured horrible personal trauma. Muschietti has a sharp eye for screen tension, holding interest in the mounting possession of the house, with poor Annabel unaware of what she’s up against. A sensible dinner is a challenge for this character. She’s no match for a monster.

There’s also a surprisingly effective emotional grip to the material, watching Annabel warm up to the kids, bonding with Victoria, the older girl who Dr. Dreyfuss employs as a hypnotized vessel to reach the mystery of Mama and her comet tail of moths. Established talent like Chastain and Coster-Waldau find a workable human touch to their performances, while Nelisse and Charpentier are exceptional as the regressed sisters, credibly playing little wild things with growing awareness of the danger they’re in. Even when the narrative stumbles, the cast keeps “Mama” engrossing with splatter of poignancy, making the feature more than a simple boogeyman valentine.

“Mama” takes its grip on disturbing behavior all the way to the climax, a slightly unsteady final act that funnels into a Grimm-style fairy tale ending, which is a common touch in the world of del Toro. The bleak but oddly magical conclusion fits “Mama” superbly, refusing to play it safe when all signs point to a more routine resolution. The ride may be a little wobbly, but Muschietti holds his ground, conjuring an ominous chiller that has imagination and visual muscle where it counts the most.

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, David Fox
Director: Andrés Muschietti

» See full cast & crew

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