Warning: Nightmare fuel ahead, next 100 minutes
As I've stated many times before, I see a lot of movies. As such, I see a lot of trailers. When I saw the first trailer for Mama, I was very intrigued. When I saw Guillermo Del Toro's name attached, I was even more so. If anybody can appreciate creepy little girls, it's that man. Then, mere weeks later, I saw the second trailer. It showed way too much, namely the titular “Mama.” I was pretty upset. I was excited about seeing what these two feral little girl were talking about when the movie actually came out, not several months beforehand!
Fortunately, I only saw that trailer once and was able to mostly forget. So, last night I settled down in my favorite spot in the theater (down front by the bars, where you can put your feet up and not have to worry about anybody sitting in front of you. You know where I'm talking about.) and prepared myself with only one request from the cinema gods: Please make this movie better than Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
Mama is about Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), his kind of bitchy hard-rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), and his two nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse). Five years ago, Victoria and Lilly were lost in the woods courtesy of Lucas's brother, who had a pretty serious meltdown, shooting two co-workers and his wife, then kidnapping the girls and driving super-recklessly down an icy road. He naturally crashes his car and dragged the girls through the woods looking for \shelter. They eventually find it in a run-down cabin and, five years later, the girls were found, dirty, feral, and sans father. Reunited with Lucas, they move into an observation house so he and Annabel can take care of them while Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) observes them. All this sounds like a Lifetime movie more-so than something del Toro would attach his name to, right? Well, the girls have an invisible friend named Mama, except she's really not so invisible, and she gets really, really jealous...
First thing's first: Mama herself is made out of 100% nightmare fuel. In a once-in-a-blue-moon instance, I found the so-so CGI to actually make her scarier. Everything about her is unnatural, and unlike the main antagonists of Insidious and Sinister, she is not goofy once you get too good of a look at her. Her inhuman wails, the way she moved, everything about her made me uncomfortable and I loved every second of it.
As far as the cast goes, Charpentier and Nelisse (especially Nelisse) were really impressive. For two little girls to outshine Jessica Chastain, that's quite a feat. Victoria was three when they went into that cabin, so she still has some social skills, but Lilly was just a baby and as a result only has very basic communication skills. Naturally, one is closer to their terrifying caretaker than the other. Watching Lilly bound around on all fours and eat moths like they were fruit was not only creepy, but believable. She spent five of her first six years on this earth eating cherries in a cabin with no heat, electricity, or indoor plumbing, raised by a horrible ghost-monster and Nelisse really nailed it. Chastain started out as a very unpleasant character, and I was not thrilled when Coster-Waldau was taken out of the picture for most of the movie. However, that allowed for Annabel, left with the responsibility of taken care of two super damaged children that she was only responsible by proxy for, to grow as a chartacter. Daniel Kash's Dr. Dreyfuss was fairly standard as doctor characters go, but he played the character well. The only other character of note in the film (aside from Mama, of course) was the girls' aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) and she played the situational antagonist (she's just worried about the kids, man!) very well, but she may as well have had 'sacrificial lamb' tattooed to her forehead.
I've always been a sucker for horror films that center around families, and Mama was nice as it featured such a broken jumble of a family, something that is pretty relatable in 2013. The film had great tension, even if much of it lead to jump scares as the payoff, but the character of Mama was creepy enough that it really didn't matter. There was a really interesting first-person dream sequence that, while a little cheesy, presented Mama's backstory in a very interesting way. As far as movie monsters go, she is one of the best to come around in a long time.
Without giving anything away, I was genuinely surprised with the end of this film. It's not the shiny and happy end that we so often get, and not even all that optimistic. When I can't guess an ending, that really goes an incredibly long way with me. Granted, it wasn't all that surprising when you look back at the film after the credits start to roll, but in a time when complacency has set in, subverting expectations is key.
Claiming that any film, regardless of genre, is the best of its kind three weeks into the new year is certainly silly, but Mama is certainly the best horror film of 2013 so far. I know it won't hold that title come December 31st, but it will be hard to beat. If you're looking for a genuinely creepy film, you will find it with Mama. I would've just been satisfied with “better than Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,” which Mama totally is.
Also, Jessica Chastain is hella sexy with that short, black hair. For what it's worth.