Review: “Mama” (2013)

Happy January – the traditional dumping ground for all the movies that the studios left on the shelf all last year that they now toss into the binĀ  so as not to stink up the joint all winter (cases in point: last January’s The Devil Inside, Underworld: Awakening and – SHUDDER – One for the Money).

But lo, what is this I see – a horror movie that looks like it might not totally suck? With ads that look legitimately creepy and impossibly promising?! Bestill my rotten little heart!

Yes, Mama had many of us reaching for the teat thanks to its awesome trailer and solid pedigree (GOLDEN GLOBE WINNER Jessica Chastain; genre geek demigod Guillermo del Toro; That Guy That Bangs His Sister on Game of Thrones). And I’m very happy to report that for the most part, Mama delivers on her promise of a frighteningly fun night at the movies.

Up until now, the scariest Mama in my personal universe was always this one:

Doubly so considering that years ago I noticed in the site reports that someone had found CampBlood by googling “Vicki Lawrence topless” (I still have NO IDEA how that led them here and do not have the faded Polaroids to prove it.)

Well, now there’s a new monstrous matriarch on the block, and she earns her spot at the bridge table alongside Norma Bates, Margaret White, and that adorably acquitted Casey Anthony. While I can’t speak directly to Mama’s specific nature without spoiling some of the fun, I will drop a few veiled clues here and there that might tip eagle-eyed readers off to what exactly Mama is all about. So proceed with a tiny bit of caution if you’re absolutely spoiler-averse.

Despite what I just said, the biggest surprise for me in Mama was that it’s actually a very straightforward story, with little of the “what the fuck was that fucking thing?!” cat-and-mouse that the trailers employ so beautifully. Once the movie starts rolling, Mama’s nature is fairly clear, and the main thrust of the story becomes figuring out who she’s gonna mess with and how our heroines will survive/escape/vanquish her. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

When The Wall Street crashes, a Finance Guy goes on a shooting spree, killing several business partners and, later, his estranged wife. He takes his little girls and runs for the hills – literally – but an accident leaves them in a snowy wilderness. They stumble across a cabin that is not as abandoned as they’d hoped, and before you can say “hop on pop,” the little girls are left in the care of Mama.

Five years later, the Finance Guy’s twin brother Lucas (both are played by the very handsome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones) still hasn’t given up the search for his brother and nieces, and his lady Annabel (Chastain) begrudgingly puts up with his obsession while moping behind a bass in a punk band. It’s also made very clear that she’s not into kids – in her first scene, she rejoices when getting a negative result in a pregnancy test.

Soon enough, a search party finds the little girls in the cabin – and they’re essentially feral little matted hairballs from 5 years without human contact. A shrink that looks like a soft, gay Tony Shalhoub (but is in fact played by Daniel Kash) believes that the elder girl, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), will regain her grasp of speech and language, but wee Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) is less of a known quantity. Before you can say “Nell Does Amityville“, the couple and the two filthy tater tots are ensconced in a nice new house and shit starts to get real when Mama comes to visit her little darlings.

From this point on, the movie follows what is basically a standard haunted house formula: Annabel and Lucas don’t know that there’s something lurking in their house, but the girls do.

Sorry, did I just say “haunted house formula”? I meant Drop Dead Fred formula.

As the baby Nells grow to actually like their new caregivers, Mama becomes more and more possessive, and they have to give her increasingly intense BTCHPLZ looks to keep her in line. Many false scares, “DID YOU JUST SEE THAT?!” gasps, and tense scenes of people pausing before they open closet doors ensue, and eventually all the Mama drama comes to a head.

For a while, Mama is wonderfully tense and delivers a number of ghoulish and creepy sequences, most of which involve a clueless Annabel doing a crossword or vacuuming while Mama looms nearby like a particularly unkempt chaperone at a middle school dance. Some of the sequences are excellently choreographed and are as funny as they are scary – not a bad balance to shoot for in a PG-13 flick that obviously isn’t going to be serving up any gore, sex, or true terror. I actually laughed out loud at one particularly gonzo scare scene and realized immediately after that no one else in the theater had laughed but me – presumably because they were appropriately freaked out. Guess I have a sick sense of humor. (YATHINK?)

Chastain is an admirably prickly leading lady here – she’s basically her character from Zero Dark Thirty in a Betty Blue wig and sweatpants. (Spoiler Alert: Mama is Osama Bin Laden!) Waldau is underused in his main role, frankly (he gets much more to do in his two minutes as Twin #1 than he does in the other 98 minutes as Twin # 2), but he’s handsome and that counts for something, right?

But the real stars of the show are the three little girls at its heart: the two that play Victoria and Lilly for the bulk of the film; and the amazing little peanut who plays Young Victoria in the prelude sequence, who is really fucking awesome. It’s a delight to see kids in horror given the license to act like kids – messy, loud, untamed little shits – instead of cold and calculating little psychopaths for a change. Sure, I love Orphan as much as the next guy, but this is fun, too.

Speaking of Orphan, is Mama this year’s unexpectedly perfect little thriller? Ehhhhhprobablynot – it does stumble in its final scenes (although the ending itself is pretty admirable in its audacity) but the lead-up is low-grade creepfest gold and will likely be more than enough to win over fans of classically-told, suspense-based horror. Plus, it does bring a new angle to its subgenre, which is something considering how many times this kind of story has been told. I’d say definitely check it out – chances are, you’ll remember Mama long after.

Rating (out of 5):

Mama is Rated PG-13 for scenes of children in peril, harm to someone that looks like Tony Shalhoub, gratuitous hair, and a total lack of Rik Mayall.

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Buzz created in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.