Mamá era una buena película de terror

No, this review is not in Spanish. But it does have a number of spoilers so you may want to beware.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to check out the new Guillermo del Toro flick, Mama, a day or two before release thanks to a screening hosted by a number of Spanish language entertainment websites and local organizations here in Phoenix.

In particular, I have to thank DesdeHollywood who gave me two tickets as part of a particular promotion they did for the film. If you are not a native speaker and are looking for a fun way to keep up with your Spanish language skills, I recommend their website. They are great at keeping up with the latest entertainment news and though their articles are all in Spanish their giveaways and promotions are in both Spanish and English.

They are doing another pre-screening promotion currently but this time for Warm Bodies. If you’ll be in Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, or Chicago on Jan. 24th or  New York, San Diego, San Antonio, Miami, Los Angeles, or El Paso on Jan. 29th, you should check it out. But do so soon before the deadlines pass.

I'm not going to lie. The fact that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is in this movie (as two characters) is a large part of the reason I went to see Mama.

I’m not going to lie. The fact that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is in this movie (as two characters) is a large part of the reason I went to see Mama.

I go into most horror movies with very low expectations so Mama was not any different. I mean, let’s be honest. Most horror movies are pretty much the same. You’ve got a slasher running around killing people or a vengeful ghost hellbent on revenge or lamenting the loss of a lover/child/etc. They’ll give you a cheap thrill and a few decent scares but that’s it. The plots are generally the same. Heck, they made Scream specifically to make fun of the fact that horror films generally follow the same plots and always have – and that was almost two decades ago.

Mama, though, was a nice change from the usual. I’m not going to say that it was an original horror film. Because it was not that original. In fact, in trying to oust convention they sort of fell into a predictable sort of pattern. But that was okay. The film was enjoyable on it’s own.

The basic plot runs like this:
Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a hotshot businessman who – after his company goes under and he loses everything – shoots his business partners and his estranged wife before kidnapping his two very young daughters. He takes them out into the woods where he finds a cabin that he takes to be abandoned. He intends to kill the girls and then himself but the cabin it turns out is not as abandoned as he thought (which we know because they make it obvious to the viewers) and when he tries to do the deed a dark figure comes out of the walls and devours him whole.

It then proceeds to take care of the girls for the next five years which is seen through a series of sort of adorable and sort of terrifying drawings done by the girls on the cabin’s old wallpaper.

They keep drawing on the walls when they come back to the land of the living, too. No one seems to think they should explain to then that they aren't supposed to do that.

They keep drawing on the walls when they come back to the land of the living, too. No one seems to think they should explain to then that they aren’t supposed to do that.

Meanwhile, Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been using his brother’s left over money to fund a search and rescue operation to try and find the girls. I don’t know if he thinks they are still alive or if he’s looking for the bodies. He’s just looking. The girls are found and then brought only to find themselves embroiled in a short family court battle. Lucas wants them but so does his brother’s wife’s aunt. Anabel (Jessica Chastain) who is his wife or girlfriend or something was earlier celebrating the fact that she wasn’t pregnant so it’s pretty obvious she’s not in any way invested in getting custody but hey. The somewhat shady psychiatrist comes through for them and they get custody.

Which, of course, should be a good thing. Except for the super jealous ghost that’s coming with the girls. Who soon after throws Lucas down the stairs. This leaves Anabel alone with the girls while he labors away in a coma and sets the main stage for the whole movie. One of the larger themes is the parallel development of Anabel as the one taking care of the girls now versus Mama who effectively raised them for five years.

The older girl is cooperative and quickly bonds with Anabel though she always seems afraid, like there is always something watching her. You would think that the psychologist working with her might help. But it turns out he doesn’t think that she’s crazy after spending five years alone in the woods – he believes that Mama is real and he goes off on his own little side quest to track down the origins of the ghost and her tragic backstory.

The younger girl could care less about the real world and is perfectly happy to continue spending all her free time with Mama. She creepily smiles and laughs at things off camera and plays tug of war with an unknown force hidden by camera angles and set pieces.

I mean, who doesn't want to hug that creepy woman in the background? (Or the child for that matter.)

I mean, who doesn’t want to hug that creepy woman in the background? (Or the child for that matter.)

I won’t give away the resolution of the movie or how the story progresses for the other characters. Suffice it to say, though, it’s not going to go well for most of them. There’s a freakin’ ghost! She’s jealous! She wants her kids back! Plus, you know, it’s a horror movie. So. But don’t think that you know how the movie is going to end. It actually kinds some of the usual convention and ends in a way you may not see coming.

Though, I did so. Who knows.

That said, the real draw of this film for me was always the cast. I love Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. He’s a phenomenal actor. But even though he plays two characters he doesn’t show up on screen much.  Luckily, when he does, he’s understandably fantastic. Jessica Chastain and the kids are the ones who really carry the film and while Jessica Chastain’s Joan Jett inspired rocker chic was great, the girls were fantastic.

Child actors can be a crap shoot sometimes. It’s just hard to place a whole lot of expectation on children so young and in this film they are front and center. Victoria, the oldest, was played by Megan Charpentier who as a really extensive filmography for someone so young. Some of her other credits include an episode of Supernatural, Resident Evil: Retribution, Red Riding  Hood, and Jennifer’s Body. The younger girl, Lilly, who was played by Isabelle Nélisse, however, sort of stole the show in my opinion. She was just as creepy as any kid in a horror film should be but she could act. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to get a child to interact with an imaginary character and seemingly bond with an imaginary character or play off of someone who was standing off-screen. But Isabelle nailed it. Totally a creepy looking kid in this film. But a really good actor for her age.

Save the children Joan Jett!

Save the children Joan Jett!

Mama is not the perfect film. But it’s good. It’s certainly worth going out to see with your friends on the weekend. But kids looking for quick thrills and good scares might be disappointed. There’s a deeper story there if you’re willing to look and the budding relationships really a heartwarming if you can look past the creepy moths, water damaged walls, and the shrieking ghost lady.

If I were giving this movie a letter grade, I would probably give it a solid B. Maybe even a B+. It could have been better but for breaking with convention a couple of times in the course of the story, I have to give it some additional credit. The ending will move you to tears. Most likely. Unless you’re just absolutely heartless. We don’t get a lot of horror films any more that really focus on story telling and for that reason alone you should give this film a look.

It opened on Friday so if you are looking for a matinee to catch on Monday, maybe consider checking it out for yourself. And, if you can, try and track down the original three minute short that inspired the longer feature film.

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