Mother knows best.
Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, and Isabelle Nélisse
MPAA Rating: PG-13
It is unfortunate and tragic that there have been real-life cases of children abandoned in the wild, left to their own devices to either succomb to the elements or become wild themselves. If only they had a mother there to care for them, to feed them, and to protect them from harm. Of course, this type of mother may harbor other instincts that aren’t as noble. It is a scenario such as this that makes up the core of the new supernatural horror film, MAMA.
MAMA is about two young sisters who, due to a volatile situation involving their father, were left in a decrepit home in the middle of the woods for five years. Once rescued, they are released into the custody of their uncle and his punk rocker girlfriend. The girls’ behavior is peculiar, as can be expected, and they keep referring to an entity known simply as “Mama.” Is Mama an imaginary guardian the girls concocted in an effort to cope with abandonment and isolation? Or is Mama a being that mysteriously cared for the girls in the middle of nowhere? Most important of all, does Mama want them back?
MAMA has plenty of horror elements within it, but it mostly feels like a dark, gothic fairy tale. If you’re looking for a terrifying ghost story, this film may disappoint. However, if you are looking for a solid spook story with plenty of substance, MAMA delivers in spades. There’s a terrific mystery at the core of this film and it is fascinating to witness each new layer unfold. The real attraction, though, is the characters. The movie offers a diverse cast who are all interesting to watch and worth investing in, especially Annabel, the girlfriend, and the two sisters, Victoria and Lilly. All three are complex and sympathetic in unexpected ways. Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, and Isabelle Nélisse all shine in their respective roles. When the suspense really kicks in for the latter half, you become genuinely afraid for these girls and want them to survive to the end of the film.
Credit must also be given to the entire production behind MAMA. The script from Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti is smart, thoughtful, and well-paced. There are a couple of cheap scares sprinkled throughout, but most of the film has more quiet, clever uses of Mama that manage to raise the hairs and ratchet the tension. Andrés Muschietti also directed the film, and he is a talent worth watching. He establishes the proper mood and atmosphere with some of the most beautiful and haunting imagery we are likely to see of any genre offering this year. The lighting, sets, locations, and film and sound editing also greatly aid in this effort, and they are all superb. The music score from Fernando Velazquez deserves special mention. It manages to be elegant and unsettling in equal measures, and a pleasure to listen to throughout the film.
Yet, there is one area where MAMA falters and it is a major one: the special effects for Mama herself. She is brought to life utilizing a mixture of puppeteering and CGI. Unfortunately, the CGI takes up most of her screentime, and the effect is never convincing. Earlier in the film, she is used sparingly, and thus is more powerful. However, she is prominent in the latter parts of the film, and her power wanes during some crucial moments. This is especially disappointing seeing as how all of the other elements exceed expectations at every turn. It isn’t a dealbreaker, but it is a slight on an otherwise impeccable production.
Despite those misgivings about the special effects, MAMA manages to deliver a top-notch supernatural tale about the power of motherly love. It may not be the horrifying powerhouse die-hard horror fans crave, but it is a well-crafted and well-told tale of the unstoppable, and sometimes even undying, bond between a mother and the children in her care. MAMA is chilling and spooky, and you’ll love her for it.
MAMA opens in theaters nationwide on Friday January 18th. It comes very highly recommended by this critic.
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