31 Days of Halloween: Day 05 – Mama

A movie review article by: Paul Brian McCoy

This Schlocktober, Comics Bulletin will be exploring the world of horror cinema, featuring thirty one notable films released between Halloween 2012 and Halloween 2013. Next up is director/co-writer Andrés Muschietti's Mama.

Well, not his Mama, but the Guillermo del Toro produced feature-length remake of Muschietti's 2008 short film Mamá.

This was the first higher-profile horror film of 2013, cashing in on the bankability of del Toro's name, as did 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark; however this time, with a smaller budget and better word of mouth, it was much more successful. Most of the credit for that, though, wasn't really the del Toro connection I don't think, but is instead due to the smartly crafted script by Muschietti, his wife Barbara, and – for some reason – the creator/writer of the BBC series Luther, Neil Cross.

It also benefits from having an intriguing and original cast of characters, with Jessica Chastain playing Annabel, a tattooed bass player in a hard rock band, and Game of Throne's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing her illustrator boyfriend, Lucas. Lucas' twin brother Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau) opens the film flipping out over the 2008 financial crisis – he's an investment banker or something – murdering his wife and business partners before running off with his two little girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse). After a car crash, the three of them end up in a strange little house in the middle of the woods, and before Jeffrey can murder the girls, a mysterious apparition kills him.

That would be Mama.

Five years later, the girls are found, living feral in the woods, and Lucas and Annabel get custody – after a short time under the psychiatric care of Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). But when they bring the kids home, Mama comes with them. And Mama don't like rivals for her babies' affections.

This is a very polished, nicely-paced film that leans more towards creepy things going on in the background than gore or violence. It's mostly about the atmosphere, and as such there are quite a few really effective moments – particularly the scenes where you see something happening on-screen that the characters either aren't noticing or can't see from where they're standing.

There's also a nice emotional hook as the little girls start easing into their uncle's household and start winning over Annabel, who is decidedly anti-kids at the start of the film. It's a bit cliché, but Chastain does a good job making the transition seem real and unforced. And then there's a tragic ending, sort of.

If there's something to really complain about with the film, it's the reliance on CGI for the ghostly Mama effects. Mama just isn't very scary as a ghost. If they had incorporated more practical effects, especially for Mama's face, this would have been a grand slam. Instead, the CG Mama takes me out of the film whenever she appears in full form – which is the entire climax of the film.

Luckily, by then, the script and the performances have grounded the emotional conflicts, so with some effort the horrible CGI Mama can be overlooked.

Read our previous review of Mama here.

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.

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