Reviewed by: David Graham

The latest horror debut to be shepherded to the screen by Guillermo Del Toro is a lot more engaging than Troy Nixey's underwhelming Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark remake, Andres Muschietti expanding his 3-minute short into a dark supernatural fairy-tale anchored by another great performance from the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain. On paper this would seem to be merely the latest Paranormal Activity clone (with particular echoes of its recent kiddie-centric sequels), but the brave decision to place the supernatural menace so fully on display for much of the duration is refreshing despite being ill-executed through corny, cartoony CGI. While there are plenty of lush gothic flourishes, there are also too many ridiculous horror tropes, but the quality of the acting - especially from child leads Megan Charpenter and Isabelle Nelisse - leads to several genuinely emotional scenes that distinguish Mama from the teen-horror crowd.

Having disappeared on the day of a family tragedy, little Victoria and her toddler sister Lily are finally found 5 years later in an isolated cabin, having regressed to an animalistic, sub-human state. Their uncle Lucas has never stopped searching for the now-orphaned girls, and jumps at the chance to be part of their rehabilitation. To this end he and begrudging goth-punk girlfriend Annabel are given a sprawling family home by the dubiously motivated Dr Dreyfuss, whose concern for the girls' welfare is offset by his fascination with their unique case. When an accident leaves Annabel alone with her makeshift family, it becomes apparent that an evil force may have followed the girls back from their ordeal, and if they are to be saved from its clutches, an ancient mystery must first be solved.

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A brilliantly-handled prologue seamlessly carries the viewer from bleak everyday horror that's none-too-subtly tied into modern concerns, over into a realm of dark fantasy that's as pleasingly archetypal as the Grimms' fairy-tales. The re-discovery of the girls is also impressive, with their spidery feral forms and the details of their sabbatical proving more startling than many of the subsequent set-piece scares. As we follow them through incarcerated therapy, shades of many classic fear-flicks creep in - everything from The Exorcist and The Omen to The Ring springs to mind - but for the most part Muschietti manages to keep things fresh through his commitment to telling a humanistic story.

The spookiest moments come before the big reveal, and refreshingly aren't always reliant on the usual cheap tactic of 'LOUD NOISES!' (though there are plenty of those to come). Muschietti teases us with glimpses of the girls playing with something in the shadows - and even in broad daylight - while hinting at the extent of its power in crowd-pleasing and even cutesy style (this is the first horror flick in a while to elicit well-orchestrated coos from the audience as well as cowers). Any psychological ambiguity the script initially flirts with flies out the window as the spectral shape makes its presence increasingly known, first to the viewer alone in some embarrassing instances of characters walking around unawares while a dodgy-looking Xbox sprite molests them from behind.

The threat grows more corporeal thereafter in a way that feels like something of a cop-out, with characters being viciously assaulted (and worse) by a foe as agile and strong as a fast-forwarded martial artist. The plot takes some swallowing as the mystery unravels further, with everyone falling foul of cliched genre convention in ways that will seriously test patience and suspension of disbelief - why is it people in these films always wait until dark to go snooping around abandoned cottages with flashlights? For this to happen more than once - and in one case when an already injured character is meant to be heading home to his family from the hospital - crucially compromises the script's credibility, and is perhaps a sign of the studio trying to insert more traditional set-pieces into Muschietti's Burton-esque tale purely for commercial reasons. It's just a shame these scenes don't work, failing to generate enough tension to overcome their silliness - who even owns a Polaroid camera anymore, let alone uses one as a back-up light source to explore pitch-black death-traps?

Fortunately, the acting often transcends the nonsensical narrative, catching the viewer off-guard with slithers of acerbic humor as well as delicately intimate moments. Many actresses would struggle not to soften Annabel's edgy attitude, but Chastain proves a perfect fit for the spiky but vulnerable heroine, and it's great to see her so visibly transformed, making for a pretty authentic rock chick (pity she couldn't have turned up like that at the Oscars).

Game Of Thrones dish Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also does well in a dual role as the girls' doomed father and doting uncle, squeezing some real emotion out of his handful of scenes despite a wavering accent. That he plays second fiddle to Chastain makes perfect sense, and helps bring out the themes of nature versus nurture (perhaps supplied by the director's sister and co-screenwriter Barbara Muschietti) that drive the character development throughout. Primarily though, Mama benefits most from a pair of promising pre-teen child actors: Charpentor and Nelisse effortlessly flit between freaky and sweet, the former really selling Victoria's conflict of concerns while the latter embraces her more physical role fearlessly.

Many will find the frights too formulaic and the plot a little creaky - the back-story is filled in with some woefully unnecessary exposition and a fall-back on dumb dream sequences - but there's a beating heart beneath Mama's glum exterior and some flinty imagination to Muschietti's writing and directing that keeps his baby from getting smothered by its own derivative nature. Despite some unsettling design work - the CGI animation is embarrassingly shoddy - it's a pleasure to see Chastain stretching herself in unexpected genres and playing against type with aplomb. Del Toro's bittersweet sensibility is approximated for a surprisingly twisted and satisfying climax that goes some way to making up for preceding lapses in logic, so overall Mama should leave viewers cautiously optimistic for whatever Muschietti does next.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2013
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Two feral children recovered from the forest are placed in the care of their aunt and uncle. But something has been caring for them, and it wants them back.
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Director: Andrés Muschietti

Writer: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Jane Moffat

Year: 2013

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Spain, Canada


Glasgow 2013

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