Good and scary, but I think a couple great opportunities were missed.
Before I get into this film, let me say that if you saw Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark you can probably drive right past this one. It’s extremely similar in that it’s about supernatural creatures wanting to take away little girls and do something horrible to them. And like Don’t Be Afraid I liked this film and was really engaged, but once again feel the need to beat my fists against the Hollywood wall of unoriginality. However, I do appreciate this story in that it helps illustrate a point I made in my list of the worst Star Trek episodes of all time: while talking about And the Children Shall Lead I said any time a group of children survive in a situation where all the adults died and you are at a loss to explain how, maybe you should keep an eye on them just in case they were aided by an evil supernatural force (or are just evil themselves).
By the way, can someone tell me when Jessica Chastain became the Hollywood “it” girl? She is in freaking everything. On the one hand I am glad for her, as I think she is a talented actor and very easy on the eyes. I especially liked her in Lawless (topless) and Zero Dark Thirty (just darned cool). However, I still harbor some ill will towards her for her part in creating psuedo-artsy crime-against-entertainment film Tree of Life. Some mistakes you pay for forever.
Like I said when I reviewed Don’t Be Afraid of the two types or horror films (terrifying, psychological or supernatural stories verses slasher) I prefer the movies that don’t rely on body count to impress the audience. When 10-15 college students end up on the wrong side of a chainsaw you just never have a chance to connect with any of them. Even the protagonist gets lost in the shuffle. When a story is wrapped around a couple of characters who have an ongoing series of bad things happen you truly identify with them and feel a true empathy. You care and hope all goes well for them. It just makes a horror movie more engaging and less comedic.
This film definitely fits into the good camp and I absolutely connected with the main characters. Overall I enjoyed it. Why, then, do I think there was something that could have been done better here? SPOILER ALERT-skip ahead a few paragraphs if you want to see this film and will lose something by having me run my mouth. You see, Mama is the ghost of a crazy woman who adopts the two girls after their father kills his wife and attempts to kill the girls. We are more or less shown her and what she is in the first five minutes. Later the psychologist thinks that Mama is a manifestation of the older girl’s psyche she has developed a motherly alter ego. What would have been really cool, IMO, is if instead of showing us Mama right away they had played this as a psychological drama where bad things keep happening and everyone keeps blaming the girls until the ghost manifests itself in all her horrible glory. It’s OK to at least try to surprise the audience. This film carries itself on the horror aspect but could have been a great story as well (kind of like the Shining). As it was there weren’t a lot of surprises in this movie.
I had some fun with this movie by mentally playing with the perspective a bit. Like I did when I saw Playing for Keep once I had used my big brain to figure out pretty much how the story was going to end (by about the first 45 minutes) I decided to pretend that instead of seeing a story about the vicious ghost of a crazy woman who murdered her own baby while killing herself and wanting to keep these two girls in seclusion while killing anyone who got between them I was seeing the story of a friendly ghost (Casper image courtesy of the Comic Book T-Shirt category) who tragically lost both her life and the life of her child while trying to escape from a mental institution who rescues two little girls from the murderous rampage of their mental father (who had just earlier killed his estranged wife) and wanted to protect them from their marginally employed uncle (brother of the father. He obviously wanted to inject them into the same dysfunctional family upbringing that created his brother), his punk rock musician girlfriend who had no interest in being a mother and was ill prepared to do anything motherly, and the self serving psychologist who wanted to treat them as a lab experiment for a book he was writing. It’s honestly the truth, depending on which side of the room you are sitting on.
Anyway, the story. Dad goes nuts and kills his ex wife and some other people at work. He takes his super cute girls on a drive into the woods. He finds an abandoned cabin where he plans to murder/suicide the whole lot. Instead he is stopped by Mama. Skip ahead five years and two white trash woodsman his brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau-Nightwatch, Blackhawk Down, Headhunters. Note-in an apparent attempt to keep the cast budget down he also plays his twin brother) hired managed to find the cabin where the girls now live literally like animals. Mama doesn’t seem to stop them from taking the girls to a hospital, where they come into the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash-Aliens, the Tuxede, Lucky Number Seven), a psychologist. Lucas wants to adopt them with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, looking really hot as a short haired tattooed brunette) in spite of the fact that his former sister-in-law (Jane Moffat-the Recruit, Driven, Moon Point) wants them and actually has a job and a house. Dreyfuss recommends them with the understanding that they stay in the area so he can continue to observe.
Honestly, at that point the story progresses in a very predicable manner. Mama shows up and over time the entire cast becomes aware of her. Dreyfuss has his own agenda with the girls. There is a lot of history on the ghost pulled up. Lucas ends up in the hospital, leaving the girls with Annabel for a while. The ending wasn’t quite what I expected (kudos to the writers) but also wasn’t mindblowingly amazing.
The stars. Very creepy and atmospheric. Two stars. All the characters were engaging, and the actors did a good job overall. One star. The two little girl actors (Isabelle Nelisse and Megan Charpentier) were shockingly good, not to mention cute as a button. One star. The lighting, camera, and CGI (Mama was super creepy) all worked well to put you in the film and scare the heck out of you. One star. Overall very entertaining. One star. A non-typical ending. One star. Total: seven stars.
The black holes. Derivative, and once you got past the creepy jump out at you stuff not really surprising. One black hole. My sympathy and connection with Annabel (really the main character, as Lucas spent a lot of time in the hospital) dropped significantly every time she did something I thought was stupid (i.e. just not bug the hell out once it became painfully obvious something was really wrong). I don’t connect well with characters I think of as dumb. One black hole. The motivation for Lucas and Annabel to make any of the life choices they did in this film were considerably less than clear. One black hole. The punk rocker sub plot added nothing and was actually kind of distracting. One black hole. Total: four black holes.
A grand total of three stars. Good movie IMO. It’s not a slasher or Saw clone. It won’t rock your preconceptions of what cinema is all about, but it will kill a couple hours. Worth seeing in a theater, as the oppressive lighting might lose a lot on a TV. On the other hand, watching a film about a ghost doing horrible things in a nice modern home might hit you a little harder if you happen to actually be in a nice modern home. Depends on what you are looking for, I guess. Date movie? Yes. Scary enough to have her in your lap but not slasher or horrible enough to make her not want to touch another human being for a couple weeks. Bathroom break? I didn’t black hole the movie for this but it does drag a little. There’s a long scene where Annabel is reading the notes of Dr. Dreyfuss and watching hypnotic interviews he conducted with the girls that doesn’t add anything at all. Most of what is revealed you should have figured out already.
Thanks for reading. More coming out this weekend, so hopefully I will find the time. Follow me on Twitter @Nerdkungfu. Comments about this movie or my review can be made down at the bottom of this article (if you don’t see the comment section click here). Off topic questions or suggestions can be emailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk to you soon.