18 January 2013

Review: Frightening Lullabies (Mama)


A mother's love is perhaps the strongest bond there is. It has the power to make a child better and, alternatively, fester into something unholy.

The night of their mother's murder, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) escape to a cold, battered cabin for the better part of five years. How they managed to survive is unknown. Over that time they become feral and dependent on Mama to live. Eventually, they are discovered by a passerby and transported to an institute where they are treated.

Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) searched frantically for them over that time and when they are found, the couple offers to take Victoria and Lilly in. Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) assures the two of them that Victoria and Lilly will readjust to society with few hitches. He would like to keep the two girls there for further study, but something about the man sets Lucas and Annabel on edge.

While Lucas seems ready for this sudden change, Annabel isn't terribly suited for the role of caregiver, she is in her own state of arrested development. Her introduction as a punk-rock bass player celebrating a negative pregnancy test seems contradictory to all of the mothers Chastain has played before (Tree of Life, Take Shelter), but Annabel gives her a chance to stretch.

Hesitantly, Annabel imparts onto the girls a new way of life. The anti-establishment rocker is now called Mom. As she grows closer to the two, the love imparted onto Lucas and Annabel is too much for Mama to bear. She will reclaim her young.

Transitioning a short into a feature-length film is seldom easy and infrequently does it turn out as well as the inspirational piece (Neil Blomkamp's District 9 being the exception). Creature design, as usual in Del Toro productions, is a plus. Mama shifted from being primarily a CGI creation in the short to a monster made up of practical effects.

Practical effects, make-up, and some computer modifications are used in stunning effect to create one of the better horror characters. Partially inspired by the Modigliani painting the Muschiettis had, Mama is so disturbing because she could pass for human at a distance, but the closer she gets to the screen, it is terrifyingly clear she isn't human.

While Mama is only a Guillermo Del Toro production, the fairy tale themes embodied throughout are always a welcome reminder of how effective the genre can be when the material is treated with honesty and an authentic passion for horror rather than gore. There are a few technical flaws with the film's editing, but most of that is easily ignored because of Chastain's lead performance and the drama unfolding onscreen.

Andres Muschietti’s original short Mama was only about three minutes long, but it delivered scares in rapid succession. This incarnation of Mama does not disappoint on that front either.

***/****