Film Reviews

MAMA

By • Jan 19th, 2013 •

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DEATH IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES

It is well known among genre buffs that some of the scariest sequences ever committed to film were ones in which more was hinted at than actually shown. One need look no further than films like, THE INNOCENTS, the 1942 version of CAT PEOPLE, or Stanley Kubrick’s now classic, THE SHINING for worthwhile examples of this. I mention this because primarily there is a real difference between being startled and being scared. Many newer horror films purposely punctuate the soundtrack with symbols crashing at ear splitting Dolby levels at least two to four times during the first half of the movie. Audiences jump, not because they’re scared necessarily but because they’re often wincing from sudden piercing strings ripping across the soundtrack. This has become the new horror film cliche. Yes, it was around in the sixties and seventies of course, but not always as a matter of course and never at the volume soundtracks are recorded at today. It isn’t inventive. It isn’t creative. And it isn’t scary. But it is jarring. Most people who expect to get scared at films are becoming satisfied if they get startled once or twice, and consider the film effective if they’ve been blown out of their seats not by what they’ve seen solely on the screen necessarily, but a marriage of something quick happening simultaneously with loud stings at ear drum busting frequencies. I bring this up because the new Guillermo Del Toro produced MAMA is a film that would have benefitted from a more Val Lewton-RKO-like approach. Having obviously been influenced by not only Lewton’s CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, but other famous horror films where the horror was never shown either, it is a pity that this film utilizes its influences while shoe-horning them in with the pre-requisite marketing tie-ins of the successful modern horror hits as well. This is not often a successful marriage. For every scene that works in MAMA (and there are several), there is one that feels completely wrong and inorganic following or preceding the better one. It’s not like the filmmakers ran out of ideas, it’s that there are simply too many ideas. Sitting there in the dark of the theatre I kept getting pulled out of the film by noticing all the homages, the references, and, yes, the cliches of films that quite simply did it better.

Too often genre reviews concentrate on merely the flaws of any given film while failing to extoll the particulars of what the film gets right. In a case like MAMA there is much to like. Jessica Chastain, virtually unrecognizable in a black Joan Jett fright wig, creates a very interesting character. Given barely any background she etches believable responses to the initial situation the screenwriters put her in. There is quite a bit of exposition before she shows up, but when she does, she anchors the film instantly. Due to some confusing elements in the opening scenes, it should be pointed out to pay close attention to the opening credits because they are fundamental in helping make sense of the five years that pass between the pre-credit sequence and the point at which the modern scenes begin taking place. Also very good are the child actors portraying the two feral children left to fend for themselves after their father, suffering from some kind of psychotic break, is “spirited” away. How and why these children are able to survive for five years on their own is one of the most intriguing elements of this film. Much of this is left up to the viewer’s imagination, and there is much food for thought (even if the only food for the two children is a bunch of cherries!) While the film’s main mystery is surrounded by time-worn cliches with supporting actors showing up to give vital information or cause trouble for the protagonists, it must be said that this film did not overplay these parts. One of the best reasons to see MAMA is because it spends a lot of time with the three most interesting characters, the aforementioned Jessica Chastain and the two feral children. Their interactions and her frustrations are creepily effective and in some cases also the most touching scenes in the movie.

This is a well-mounted, expensive looking film that has several great set pieces. As I mentioned before these set pieces might have worked better had they led the film beautifully into a Val Lewton homage that remains suggestive of horror rather than giving the game away in glaring close ups. This movie’s monster is given so much screen time that there is simply too much time to study the design and effects, which created her digitally. It’s not that she isn’t interesting it’s that upon close inspection she clearly seems animated. It’s no wonder then that audiences at preview screenings found many elements of this film unintentionally funny. This on top of the fact that the list of familiar set pieces from other films gets a bit longer as we go along as well. There’s THE RING and THE GRUDGE, CABIN IN THE WOODS and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. The list goes on and on. By the time the children learn that this spirit is not everything they thought but instead some kind of seven foot tall screaming banshee designed to compliment a creature out of PAN’S LABYRINTH it simply is too late to make a difference.

Now I really wanted to like this film because there is genuine evidence of talent here, especially from first time director Andy Muschietti, so much so that I am really looking forward to what he chooses to do next, because if he chooses to remain in the horror genre there is a wealth of material in the ghost stories of authors like M.R. James and Algeron Blackwood or Arthur Machen to fill the screen with genuine fright for a change, so I firmly believe with the right script in hand this director is more than capable of finding his own voice and fulfilling the promise Del Toro believed in all along but was simply to busy to lend a hand in realizing.

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One Response »

  1. “Many newer horror films purposely punctuate the soundtrack with symbols crashing at ear splitting Dolby levels at least two to four times during the first half of the movie.”

    Symbols? Cymbals!

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