If there’s one thing that modern horror movies love to use it’s creepy little girls and we get a big dose of them in “Mama”, the new horror picture from executive producer Guillermo del Toro and first time director Andres Muschietti. “Mama” steers clear of the cheap and often used blood and gore and instead goes the eerie ghost story route. But while it may stay away from one set of conventional, hackneyed horror movie gimmicks it fully embraces others. But that’s okay. There’s enough here to make “Mama” feel fresh. More importantly, it has it’s fair share of creepy moments.
Jessica Chastain gets her first movie of 2013 under her belt by playing a role that shows her incredible and impressive range. Here she dons a short black wig and fake tattoos to play Annabel, the bass player in a punk rock garage band. No, I’m serious! Her boyfriend Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) has exhausted his resources in a 5-year search for his twin brother and two young nieces. His brother snapped, killed several co-workers and his estranged wife, then disappeared with the girls. We learn all of this in the opening sequence and it’s pretty effective table setting.
Lucas’ final search team stumbles across the wrecked car of his brother which leads to an old abandoned cabin. Inside they find Victoria and her younger sister Lilly. The two are nothing more than wild animals. They immediately go under the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) who is able to make progress with Victoria through the small bit of English she remembers. He ends up sending them home with Annabel and Lucas with hopes that the familiarity and love will help their progress. I shouldn’t need to tell you that something else comes home with them, something the girls simply refer to as “Mama”.
Now it won’t take you long to notice almost every familiar ghost story gimmick. There are flickering lights, mysterious slamming doors, eerie voices, terrifying dreams, loud bursts of music, and even a spooky closet and a “what’s under my bed?” scene. And of course horror movies can’t feature smart characters. Everybody does some pretty dumb yet standard stuff. I mean at what point do these people finally realize that walking towards the creepy screams, moans, and gurgling sounds IS NOT A GOOD IDEA!
But let’s be honest, these things are a given when it comes to modern horror pictures so you have to accept it. And despite these predictable devices, “Mama” still manages to deliver a ghostly good time. Like any good PG-13 horror flick, the scares in “Mama” generate in your head with director Muschietti often using what the audience doesn’t see. He works heavily in mood and tone and his skillful use of sound is one of his key instruments. But he also has a keen eye for visuals and I noticed several classic techniques taken from Hitchcock and other accomplished directors. All of this makes the movie a little unnerving when it needs to be and creepy throughout. It’s never ‘jump out of your seat’ scary but it doesn’t need to be.
Then there’s the way the story plays with the deep love of a mother for their child. Two opposite approaches to this collide head-on. I won’t go into spoiler territory but I found it to be pretty clever. In fact “Mama” as a whole is pretty clever. Yes, horror movie cliches abound and the ending may leave you scratching your head, but this is still a satisfying endeavor filled with strong performances and made by a director who knows what he’s doing. This may not break new ground or take the genre in new directions, but it’s a lot of fun and ultimately satisfying. That’s how movies should be.