Never underestimate the power of a good idea, and the spooky "Mama" has got a good one: Never underestimate the power of a maternal instinct.
A man commits a heinous act and kidnaps his daughters, ages 3 and 1, who end up left alone in a run-down cabin in a forest. When they are found there five years later, alive and feral and apparently alone, their survival seems impossible - unless they were not alone.
Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj
Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier,
Cinemark Tulsa, Promenade,
Cinemark Broken Arrow,
RiverWalk, Owasso, Starworld
20, Eton Square
1 hour, 40 minutes
PG-13 (violence and terror,
some disturbing images and
(on a scale of zero
to four stars)
The film by turns channels elements of "Poltergeist," as well as "The Ring," and it can be repetitive when it comes to "gotcha" scenes. We've seen enough "What's inside the closet?" moments and witnessed the silent tension in a room being shattered by a ringing telephone more than a few times.
But such cliches can be forgiven and even embraced when a film touches on as many base emotions as "Mama" does, and when it accomplishes its fear factor without resorting to gore, profanity or sexuality.
This is a classy ghost story with an absorbing style and pacing that ultimately builds on its scares to a conclusion that will haunt viewers.
The makers of "Mama" believe in old-fashioned creepy fun and employing quality actors to pull it off, with superb performances by two little girl actors and by Jessica Chastain, who further expands her range to include supernatural horror among her credits of comedy ("The Help") and drama ("Zero Dark Thirty").
The picture is expanded from a short film by a brother-and-sister team of Andres Muschietti (who directs here) and Barbara Muschietti (who produces), but the fingerprints of executive producer Guillermo del Toro are all over this project.
The little girls, now 8 and 6 years old (Megan Charpentier and Isabel Nelisse, respectively), are both animalistic when first found. They live in survival mode in the woods and when placed in a house with their father's brother, who never gave up looking for them, and the uncle's girlfriend (Chastain), who doesn't appear to have a maternal bone in her body.
The younger sister is particularly sensitive: She sits on the floor eating cherries near the kitchen table, sleeps beneath her sister's bed and clings to her from behind, peering out with one eye. When she creeps around the house on all fours, she looks something like a nightmarish giant frog in the shadows.
It's impossible to not see her for her innocence, for her adaptation to an odd environment and for her enhanced natural instincts, which make her look like an animal who could strike at any moment if threatened.
Nelisse is mesmerizing in her role, and Charpentier plays the sister who is two years older with just the right amount of added maturity and trust. Both are astoundingly good.
Not that either girl must defend herself much because that job appears to be taken by the fiercely protective "mama," a computer-generated feminine ghoul with what appear to be wispy, Medusa-like waves of hair, who is seen only in shadows and quick-cut edits until the third act.
Those who have seen del Toro's masterful direction of "Pan's Labyrinth" will recognize the abstract, lithe creature we see as "mama," and those familiar with his production of the Spanish-language horror "The Orphanage" will recognize from both films the concept of children mingling with what appears to be an imaginary friend.
It is a theme that any child or parent can relate to in the moviemaker's affecting films, and it remains fresh because del Toro always finds a way to keep the theme fresh.
In "Mama," we can't help but be reminded that modern families come in all kinds of unconventional shapes and sizes. And that's without a parent being a ghost.
Chastain is the glue that holds this film together when a thin plot shows through the style.
With short dyed-black hair and tattoos on both arms, her Annabel is a rocker-chick - literally, as she plays bass guitar in a rock band - definitely inspired by Joan Jett. We can infer that she has been a wild child herself, and abandoning the lifestyle to be a mother-figure is not what the "cool uncle's girlfriend" signed up for.
But when the uncle is knocked out of the picture for much of the movie, her rise from disengaged guardian to fierce protector is refreshingly natural and believable for this genre, occurring gradually through some beautifully staged moments of respect and closeness between Chastain and the girls.
In a haunting movie that reminds us that it's best to not mess with mothers of any type, these scenes are a wonderful way of showing how children in need will latch onto the love that is shown to them.
Original Print Headline: Don't mess with 'Mama'
Michael Smith 918-581-8479