Mama (2013)

The Guillermo del Toro Produced Ghost Story, “Mama,” will Chill the Bones of the Bravest of Souls this January!

Seasons Greetings, my friends, it’s The Phantom of the Ville calling out to you from the icy grip of winter to tell you about a film that will wrap its cold skeletal grip around your throat when it opens on January 18th. As a fan of fantastic cinema who often wanders the Earth seeking the most imaginative, shocking and talented new voices in the horror genre, I occasionally get to see new films before they are unleashed upon the unsuspecting multiplexes. In this case, I was haunting the renowned Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Austin, TX as a guest of resident King of Movie Geeks, Harry Knowles, at his annual secret 24 hour film festival, Butt-Numb-A-Thon.

For those unfamiliar with BNAT, this year marks the fourteenth annual event programmed by Knowles who started the tradition as a way to celebrate his birthday watching movies at his favorite theater with 200 of the most obsessed film fans in the country. Invitation only, attendees must fill out a lengthy application that tests and gauges their love and knowledge of cinema. Thousands apply, but only a handful get the golden ticket. Knowles secretly programs 24 hours of both vintage films and modern Hollywood premieres that sometimes screen for the select audience months ahead of their scheduled release dates. Both behind-the-scenes and on-screen celebrity talent often accompany the screenings, and past guests have included Mel Gibson, Vin Diesel, Bo Svenson, Mc G, Zack Snyder, Eli Roth, Jackie Earl Haley and Seth Rogen. Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Jamie King (“My Bloody Valentine 3D,” “Silent Night”) are regular guests who attend the whole festival as film fans. This year brought out both Peter Jackson, who presented “The Hobbit” in 48 frames-per-second 3D, and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “Blade 2,” etc.), who produced the new ghostly horror film, “Mama,” with first time director, Andres Muschietti, who was also in attendance.

Guillermo del Toro is clearly a fan of the classical haunted house film. He has recently been attached to the reboot of Walt Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” franchise, and he owns actual props from the original Disneyland darkride. Besides his own ghostly films like “The Devil’s Backbone,” he has also served as executive producer on the haunted house flicks, “The Orphanage” (2007), and the re-make of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (2010).

“Mama” shares a lot of common haunted ground with traditional Gothic ghost stories of the past, including tragic and violent death, vengeful spirits and foggy cliffs overlooking crashing waves below. It certainly recalls films like “The Uninvited” (1944), “The Haunting” (1963) and “The Innocents” (1961), but it also fuses those classical elements with modern ghost stories as diverse as “The Ring” (1998), “Paranormal Activity” (2004) and “Insidious” (2010). It’s a blend of classic creeps and modern crawls that works its dark magic well enough that I’d imagine that many grown men will be calling for their own mamas before the end credits when it opens in late January.

“Mama” opens with an unfortunately horrific event that has sadly become too common in our society, as we learn through news reports that an office executive has just killed his boss and another co-worker in an office shooting. We pick up the story just as he frantically arrives home from the murders, and when confronted by his wife, kills her as well. He enters the room of his two young children, five year old Victoria and toddler Lilly, taking them from their beds and putting them in the backseat of his car as he drives away to nowhere. His desperate state of mind and icy road conditions leads to an accident that strands the trio in a remote, barren location. He forces the girls to trek through the frozen woods until they stumble across an abandoned cabin where he starts a fire and begins to contemplate the final fate of himself and his daughters. What he doesn’t know is that something else also lives in the cabin; something as mad and tortured as himself and it’s watching. Unlike this man, however, Mama was once a mother herself and she has been suffering the loss of her own child for over a hundred years and can’t let anyone harm these innocent children in her home.

The story then switches gears and we’re introduced to the man’s slacker music producer brother, Lucas, and his girlfriend and wannabe rock chick, Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “Zero Dark Thirty”). Lucas can’t just let his nieces be forgotten, and has spent five years organizing search efforts to find them. Finally, his efforts pay off and two of his hired men find the girls still living in the dilapidated cabin kept alive by cherries left by Mama. Raised for five years by an insane spirit, the girls are nearly completely feral. As the oldest child when left alone in the wilderness, Victoria can still speak English, but Lilly is almost completely wild and communicates only in grunts, and one of the only words she knows is “mama.” A sympathetic but mysteriously curious physician, Dr. Dreyfuss, helps reunite the girls with their uncle Lucas and his girlfriend and they ultimately come to live with them in the suburbs in the hopes of social rehabilitation. For Lucas, it’s a winning situation because he has spent all his money on the search efforts and failed music projects, and the state is willing to pay for a home for the family as long as Dr. Dreyfuss can study the girls’ progress. Annabel, however, has rock star ambitions and isn’t ready for the responsibility of dealing with any kids, let alone damaged and unstable ones, and she certainly doesn’t feel she’s suited for motherhood.

The new, estranged family doesn’t move into the new house alone, however. Mama has followed the girls from the cabin to live in their bedroom closet and Lilly, especially, wishes to continue her nightly secret visits with her otherworldly parental figure. As Dr. Dreyfuss investigates a series of unusual deaths connected to the cabin and its family history, a tale of insanity and tragedy emerges, while Mama begins to get jealous of and angry at the girl’s new caretakers.

Ultimately, left alone with the children and under the baleful eye of an insane spirit, Annabel must face the demons inside herself as well as the real ones inside her home if she wishes to save herself and the children from the deadly rampage of Mama. Brace yourself. This is gonna hurt!

First time director, Andres Muschietti, manages to pull off at least as many jump scares as any “Paranormal Activity” movie, and at least one scene of nightmarish sudden terror caused chills to crawl up my spine and the hairs to stand up on my neck. Muschietii keeps Mama just off screen or lurking in the corners of the frame for most of the film’s running time, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the visceral gaps. This is a PG-13 rated film, but it feels much harder than the slickly produced, teen oriented PG-13 horror that the major studios grind out with regularity.

What sets this film apart from the “Final Destination” films and haunted/demonic possession films that seem to hit the multiplex every three months is the unique nature of its concept and the richness of the characters. While guaranteeing the audience’s emotional connect to the children in peril is a fairly easy task, Muschietti and del Toro create a tapestry in which all of the major characters are worthy of sympathy in spite of their flaws. This not only includes Lucas and Annabel, but ultimately Mama herself. She is certainly mad, twisted and murderous, but not necessarily evil.

The story’s climax indeed requires that the audience at least understand Mama’s condition either through a mother’s misunderstood and irrational love or just through horrified pity. This requires “the monster” to finally come out of the shadows and take center stage, and it’s at this point that some will feel the film literally loses its footing.

Ghost stories usually operate best with a “less is more” philosophy, and it’s what you don’t see that makes a greater psychological impact than what you do see. Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” proves this theory quite well while Jan de Bont’s 1999 remake of the same story fails utterly by spending millions of dollars on special effects to show the audience all the ghosts that money can buy to the complete loss of anything even remotely scary. Rare exceptions like “Poltergeist” (1982) allowed ILM to create a whizbang spook house ride that actually worked as a thriller, but if you aren’t Steven Spielberg or a modern master of popcorn cinema, you’re probably best taking the low road.

Moving Mama to center stage at the climax is a risky move, but I think it mostly works both because her character is so strong and because the creature effects are so well designed. Her visage is twisted and monstrous, but there is a sense of lost humanity in her eyes and labored movements. However, she is a completely computer generated creation and the more she’s on screen in sharp focus, the more that becomes apparent. This very same issue also plagued the Guillermo del Toro produced “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” at that film’s climax, somewhat deflating an otherwise excellent scare flick, but so much good will had been generated by the filmmakers by this point in “Mama” that I was willing let the admittedly great creature design work its magic for me. There were others in the same screening that felt the overzealous use of CGI at the climax dulled the edge of an otherwise sharp thriller.

Even if you end up in agreement with those clearly deluded folks, there’s a good chance that “Mama” will still not only frighten you while you’re in the theater, but will follow you home to torment your psyche hours and even days later. I think it stands a good chance of becoming the breakout horror film of the year. The icy cold of Louisville in January will be the perfect time and place to test your fragile psyche and jangled nerves at the multiplex with the warm embrace of “Mama.” Happy Holidays.

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