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'Mama' Movie Review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


'Mama' movie poster.
© Universal
Seemingly linked (correctly or not) to a dozen genre films at any one time, Guillermo del Toro lends his name as executive producer on Mama, a ghost story headlined by Academy Award nominee and rising star Jessica Chastain.

The Plot

Stressed-out Wall Street-type Jeff (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) snaps one winter day and guns down his business partners at work, then returns home and shoots his wife to death. He grabs his two toddler daughters and drives into the snowy wilderness, but when he crashes, the girls are left to fend for themselves in an abandoned cabin in the woods. But it turns out not to be so abandoned after all; there's a ghostly entity inside, and it takes a liking to the kids, protecting them for the next five years.

They're eventually discovered in a filthy, feral state, and Jeff's twin brother (Coster-Waldau) gains custody, moving the girls -- 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) -- into the home he shares with his girlfriend (and reluctant mother) Annabel (Jessica Chastain). As the children try to adapt to the civilized world, it becomes evident that the spirit, who they dub "Mama," has followed them and has no intentions of letting their new guardians take her kids away from her.

The End Result

Jessica Chastain in 'Mama'.

Jessica Chastain in 'Mama'.

Photo: George Kraychyk © Universal
Maybe it's because I'm a parent of two young children, but Mama is as emotionally trying a horror movie as I can recall ever seeing. It left me stunned, distraught, exhausted and frankly, unhappy. But while it may not always be likable, it's darn effective. That it's scary is a given, but what's surprising is how heart-wrenching the film is, playing (perhaps manipulatively) on the children-in-peril theme throughout. Although Chastain is the headliner, it's the two young stars who truly deliver the story's emotional heft. Chastain's character, frankly, is only sporadically likable, and Chastain is only sporadically believable as a strident punk rocker (even her tattoos look fake).

Don't let the talk of drama discount how potent Mama is as a horror movie, though. It's creepy with a capital "C" -- perhaps the scariest ghost movie since Insidious -- thanks to wonderfully grotesque creature design (played, incidentally, by the same guy who made the Niña Medeiros character in REC so memorable), jarring sound effects and assured direction from Spanish newcomer Andrés Muschietti. Maybe there is a little too much focus on cheap jump scares, but more often than not, Muschietti sets up an executes the fright scenes with a deft, non-exploitive touch.

The script, however, could be a bit tighter to eliminate some vagueness and to deliver more on some story elements that are introduced and then wither with minimal impact. Still, while not wholly original, it's a fresher take on the haunted house genre than we're usually privy to, carrying with it both a sense of humanity and a bold, dark edge that reminds us that life can be cruel.

The Skinny

  • Acting: B (Excellent, heartbreaking performances from the child stars.)
  • Direction: B+ (Conveys both horror and drama with deeply penetrating impact.)
  • Script: C+ (Uncompromising and melancholy with some missed opportunities.)
  • Gore/Effects: B (Not much gore is warranted; great character design and great "wild child" effects.)
  • Overall: B (Unusually dramatic, emotional genre fare with some creepy and stunning visuals.)

Mama is directed by Andrés Muschietti and is rated R by the MPAAvfor violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements. Release date: January 18, 2013.

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