576 Mama (2012), two stars, May 5 2013
Mama is an odd entry into contemporary horror, excelling in a few elements, but generally brought down by the endemic pitfalls of horror as a genre in these times. I said in my review of the original Children of the Corn that that movie was the Citizen Kane of the use of children’s drawings in film in order to figure things out, but the motif has survived to this generation as well as evidenced in Insidious and this movie surpasses even the earlier in an extensive use of explanatory children’s drawings in the opening credits, then, after the two girls get lost, all over the walls of the cabin they inhabited for years, their cave painting in their feral state, and, then, back in the uncle’s home, all over the walls, wainscot, dresser drawers and back of doors, the drawings sometimes, at key times, for example, warning us of things Chastain does not see (that Mama is in the closet), and generally being quite impressive throughout. The psychiatrist attached to the case also reads the drawings to sense where the girls are, and the drawings are just important throughout: and its very impressive art direction. If only Mama were a flipbook filmed of the children’s drawings. The story is that a father in a family annihilation moment kidnaps his two girls and drives them out in the country to a remote country cottage where he plans to shoot them but cannot, he kills himself or is killed by…something. Fast forward five years and a scout out looking for the lost girls for their uncle finds the car and then the cabin and discovers that the girls have gone feral under the guidance of some spirit of the house or woods. Now we return to civilization and uncle and his punk rock girlfriend, played somewhat out of typecast by a very bosomy Jessica Chastain, adopt them, and take them into a test case home sponsored by the hospital to nurse them back to normalcy. But Mama has followed them back into the house, and from thence the plot ensues. I don’t know. The remote cottage thing has a fairy tale quality to it, the feral child thing was referred to in 2010s Wolfman, and the hospital sequences tend to make the whole thing psychological, though the doctor does come to concede a supernatural element. He seems influenced by a local librarian in Clifford Forge who says a kind of demon can form from the detritus of nature into a twisted thing, a good explication of palinogenetic belief going back 1000s of years. Then when we get into the house and get glimpses of the girls playing with some black shadow we are in a place conflating odd sightings or hauntings in the Paranormal movies, tracking, in fact, that plot sequence, and then of course it would seem that the only monsters we believe in any more are those that rise moldlike like black stains from the walls of houses, and this is the influence of the Asian movies, which have had a profound influence on horror (though the tentacle black miasma monster goes back in American film at least to the House on Haunted Hill 1999). The gradual appearance of mama is drawn out by the fact that while at first caustic and refusant Chastain eventually warms up to the task, especially with regard to protecting the girls. When the psychologist goes back out to the house in the woods and finds the original stain place he is killed so Chastain steals his records and zeroes in. The doctor has gone to local records and found that in the 1890s a girl at a Catholic nun’s school who had a child ran out into the woods to commit double suicide off of a peak over a spooky inland lake not unlike Josettes peak in the Dark Shadows movies but when she jumped the baby snagged in a bundle on a tree branch and was hung out to survive while the ghost of the mother decayed and longed for her from below. This is all shown in a dream sequence which is by far the most impressive visual sequence of the movie. As a result, mama turns out to be from the lake, like Jason, like the hitchhiker in Lets Scare Jessica to Death, and the baby is a palinogenetic creation of the waste of nature, the two together in decay go to make the strange plantlike stain being that mama is. Especially interesting is that in that world, cared for by this spirit carrot, the girls made dolls that have a voodoo cast about them. All of this is not bad, and the working out of it plumbs many an urban legend, with connections to a lot of other inland spooky lake stories. The main problem is that the movie’s CGI people then get involved and draw mama out of the realms of the Grudge and into the world of animated ghosts re Dark Shadows and then things finally end up at the very Josette’s peak over the lake, impressively viewed from the cabin, Mama is about to jump back in with the girls, but Chastain negotiates and screams her way to pulling one girl back, while the other girl is lifted up and swirled down in a ridiculously selfindulgent CGI orgy that entirely unravels the suspense and whatisit oddness of the proceedings prior to that. The movie in its climax then goes absolutely kablooey crazy, it’s jumps out of being a horror movie and becomes more a film fantastique. (Though at this point it also occurred to me that this was an American telling of the Mexican La Llorna, weeping woman, story, in a way). And then the little girl gets killed?– that’s no fun. All in all, the only true emotional moment in the movie comes when Chastain, as I mentioned, rather bosomly rendered, grabs the youngest girl, having a fit, and uses her body to pin her down, and that physical embrace without words says more to the girl than anything else, creating a bond of love, fostering Chastains maternal instinct, but also sparking Mama’s jealousy, to taking action. Finally, there is a nasty little anti-Children Services whisper in the movie, which is good, as an aunt seeking custody uses that arm of the government to mess up the proceedings, but she is taken over by mama too and turned into not only a bad but ugly and laughable cartoon character. So, the story seemed conjured from likes in recent films, cobbled together (shall we call it thumbs up improv) over social issues and the news, set as if a figuring out of the Paranormal movies, all without any sense of the fullness of the motifs involved, but then utterly sunk by excessive hubris in the CGI: many of the same faults of a number of contemporary horror movies.