Tuesday, 16 April 2013

[13th Belfast Film Festival] Days 2 & 3 - Watchtower, Radio Free Albemuth

Though peppered with a little variety, the majority of the films I have booked myself into at this years festival are new cinema from across the festivals of the world.

Watchtower (2012) 
(Gözetleme Kulesi)

Location - Queens Film Theatre

Director - Pelin Esmer
Country - Turkey, Germany
Starring - Olgun Simsek, Nilay Erdonmez
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisA man and a woman seeking refuge from the world: Nihat at a remote forest fire tower, Seher in her room at a rural bus station. When their lives collide, each now has to fight their battle of conscience before the other.

If cinema can extract the beauty from the darkest of places, it can also sterilise the most wondrous of worlds. Where the likes of Terrence Malick brings out the most rapturous power in his landscapes, Turkish film maker Pelin Esmer finds nothing but indifference. Her underscored drama Watchtower is set within the beautiful mountain regions near capital Kastamonu, but her characters are so broken by life that they cannot see the majesty of what unfolds in front of them. 

Split between two primary protagonists, Esmer's film looks into the distances we put between ourselves and others as a barrier in the face of destruction. The first is Nihat, a middle aged man struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of his wife and child has taken a job as a forest fire scout, but cannot find the solace or isolation he needs through the constant radio chatter of his fellow co-workers. This simple and intrusive device never adds up to the critique of our boundaries that Esmer seemed to be applying, it instead offers a comforting annoyance to know that the world moves outside the dreary company of Nihat. The second is Seher, a collage girl left pregnant by the uncle who's care she was in and abandoned by her parents, who works at the bus company near the shops Nihat visits. Their interaction is fleeting, though the film cannot draw any empathy from the characters, their non-relation or their situation because Esmer fails to draw connections to each of the characters, opting only for parallels. 

Like the work of the Dardenne brothers, Watchtower is centered around a single, pivotal collision of moral obligation, of guilt and desperation. Here it comes from Seher's abandonment of her new born child, an act observed by Nihat, whom rescues the child and takes them both to his watchtower in an attempt to save them both.

Watchtower is over-encumbered by the weight Esmer adopts onto the shoulders of the audience. The flat digital cinematography does find the indifference of the main characters, but not the essence. There is so little hope to be found here, Nihat's attempted redemption doesn't come from an inner force, but from necessity. Likewise Seher finds so little compassion in herself as she nurses her child that you wonder if she is beyond help. As a meditation on nihilism and guilt, it merely wallows in the sterile, absence of beauty cast in the lonely shadow of the observation.  

Radio Free Albemuth (2010)

Location - Queens Film Theatre

Director - John Alan Simon
Country - USA
Starring - Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Katheryn Winnick  
Running Time - 100 minutes
SynopsisBerkeley record store clerk Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) begins to experience strange visions from an entity he calls VALIS that cause him to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles where he becomes a successful music company executive.

Giving rise to some of Hollywood's most recently acclaimed  science fiction films Phillip K. Dick's stories have risen from underground to a house hold name. Though fans of the novelist   are sure to be less than thrilled when it comes to the treatment of his work, see (The Adjustment Bureo.) Still given that Radio Free Albemuth is being heralded by some as the most faithful rendition of Dick's paranoid vision of the world around him then maybe we should be more thankful of Hollywood's interference (okay, so we'll not go that far.) 

I'm being overly harsh on Radio Free Albemuth, this is clearly a love letter written on budget bog roll. First time director John Alan Simon has done his best to faithfully adapt Dick's story of meta-mechanics, authoritarian governments and paranoia into the cinematic form, but has clearly been so hampered by the budget that it loses itself in layers upon layers of text. Dick's story is most definitely suited to the written word, where in, with an understanding of the context (this was Dick's attempt at understanding a transcendental experience he had in 1974) the talk of religious alien visions and subliminal messages would be given a greater sense of place and personal exploration (Dick places himself as a figure in the novel.)

Though the actors try their best, the script is so clunky in its exposition and ideas that it comes off as undeniably amateurish. To it's credit however, the cheap look of the sets and laughable special effects do sell a strange and surprisingly textual unreality, a similar effect to that of Cronenberg's Cosmopolis from last year, only without the cinephile mastery of the art. A noble misfire, one perhaps aimed not at me but for the fans across the stars. 

Friday, 12 April 2013

[The 13th Belfast Film Festival] Day 1 - The Mask

And so it begins. 

This is the first entry in my coverage of the 13th Annual Belfast Film Festival. Over the course of the next 10 days I've booked myself into a lot of films, and I hope to find time to cover them all for you. This is something I'm pretty excited about, the range and quality of the films on show over the course of the festival is an example of how Belfast has developed both culturally and cinematically over the last couple of years. 

I kicked off the festival in the cosy bean-bag cinema, a snug and suitably low-key setting that fitted the vibe of our first film perfectly. 

The Mask (1961) 

Location - BFF Beanbag Cinema

Director - Julian Roffman
Country - Canada, USA
Starring - Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Anne Collings
Running Time - 83 Minutes
Synopsis - A young archaeologist believes he is cursed by a mask that causes him to have weird nightmares and possibly to murder. Before committing suicide, he mails the mask to his psychiatrist, Dr. Barnes, who is soon plunged into the nightmare world of the mask.

As 3D tears its way through our multiplexes with an unsupported metabolism, each new re-release and shoe-horned gimmick come with the sense of inevitable collapse. The profits are down, the release numbers are down and the interest is down. Why? There is probably a long list of socio-economic factors that could be wheeled out in order to explain the short lived fad. Yet it is in the view of this film-school romantic that 3D is losing its numbers because its lost its fun

And here we have Julian Roffman's low budget horror-schlock The Mask which doesn't just gives us all the gimmicks and silliness, it embraces them in a wonderful meta-textual exploration of audience interactivity. 

Just as The Wizard of Oz famously opened in Black and White, before blowing the world apart in a Technicolor marvel, The Mask traps us in the two dimensional reality as the suicide of a young archaeologist launches a inquiry about a missing mask. For the first half hour the film plays out like one part Scooby Doo, one part Citizen Kane. Slowly the pieces unravel as detective and psychologist move from clue to clue but it is only when the missing mask (mailed before the archaeologist could take his own life) arrives Dr Allan Barnes desk (in a moment of pure Hitchcockian McGuffunry) that things enter the new dimensional horror promised by the films trailer. 

Tempted by the enclosed letter, Barnes dawns the mask and is immediately inflicted with horrific visions. Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Put on the mask! Rings the voice over, but really it's a warning to the audience. On goes the old school red and blue glasses and suddenly we all found ourselves in a grotesque trans-dimensional nightmare. How well these sections worked almost took me by surprise, structurally they're pretty flimsy, the don't really offer anything other than haunted house sequences intended to shock the audience with vague ties to the overarching story of ancient evil. Yet I couldn't help but give myself to them completely. It brought the audience along with Dr Barnes into a new reality, giving the effects a reason to exist and the audience a reason to interact with them. Not to mention the sequences themselves were marked by creatively devilish set design and special effects, it frequently called to mind the work of Jean Cocteau, had he collaborated with Goya. 

The Mask might be a little to dreary for it's own good, there isn't enough ham to make it's rather silly and forgettable plot all that interesting, and the acting isn't great, but it isn't terrible enough to offer up more than a few giggles. But that didn't stop it from being a joyously memorable ride on an old rickety ghost train.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

For Roger Ebert

As I write this, I imagine there are hundreds of similar posts, with similar contents, being constructed by critics, fans and well wishers throughout the web. I'm not going to repeat what has been said. You'll find so many beautiful eulogies and love letters from those that knew him, from those much more skilled than I and  from well... from Ebert himself, across the internet tonight as cinema mourns one of its most beloved characters. His death, though desperately sad given a recent post about his wish to continue writing despite the reemergence of cancer, seems like a poetically hasty end to a long and difficult battle. 

Ebert gave himself to cinema. He presented it with honesty and frankness as he searched for something, for anything in everything. He didn't find one truth, he found thousands in the works of the filmmakers he loved. But it isn't what this post is about, Ebert's writing style has been a great influence on so many critics and writers down the years but for me it was something else.  

After surgery complications Ebert's lower jaw was removed and he never spoke again. And this is where his influence on me, and thousands more is best felt, Ebert turned to blogging. On his own site he turned out reviews with a consistency that would put most to shame, despite his age and fading health. Few older critics adapted so keenly to the net as the new hive for film journalism, but Ebert made it legitimate. He bridged the gap; ushered in a new life, new style and a new generation. 

So Mr Ebert, I am forever thankful to you. Not just for your passion, not for your intelligence or your soul... but because you gave me the reason to try.  

Only one quote remains, from his review of La Dolce Vita - a film, perhaps fittingly, that I don't even like: 'There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.'

Roger Ebert

Monday, 1 April 2013

[Review] Good Vibrations - Heart Strings

Good Vibrations (2012)

Director - Lisa Barros D'Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Country - Northern Ireland
Starring - Jodie Whittaker, Richard Dormer, Dylan Moran
Running Time - 102 minutes
Synopsis - A chronicle of Terri Hooley's life, a record-store owner instrumental in developing Belfast's punk-rock scene.

Cinema has not been particularly kind nor has it been entirely accurate in the portrayals of Northern Ireland and its people. Occasionally demonized, frequently generalized, above all else we are stripped of our nature. The most recent example being Steve McQueen's artistically rendered critical darling Hunger, a methodical poem of destruction that captured the nuance in its stillness, but not the spirit and the noise of its people. Too often it is only the context, the history, the violence and its far reaching affect that is seen, not the self-deprecating wit, the passions and the unbridled hospitality.

But Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's story of home-grown legend Terri Hooley, known as the father of Belfast Punk and founder of the Good Vibrations record label and shop, are here to show the world just why Belfast was and still is a fondly remembered hot-spot for so many of music's greatest talents.

A dreamy pre-credits sequence of young Terri skipping through his idyllic rose garden and discovering his passion for music in 50s folk, before his eye is shot out by an arrow fired from a neighbourhood kid because of his father, a trade unionist, has him dubbed a 'communist.' It's an important scene, it capsulate everything the film is about - the overarching tone running through Northern Ireland during that time (and this) and the reason for Terri's miniature rebellion, all wrapped in the films delicious black wit. Good Vibrations attempts a contemporary look at 'the troubles' (a word Terri finds as equally useless as 'revolution') with home footage and newsreels scattered throughout the running time in various forms. They don't gel with the films digital look, compared to the likes of Argo in which Affleck used lenses from the time in order to create a textual political tone. But they do provide the context needed to give Terri's campaign a sense of weight most music films fail to achieve.

Terri, played with a charming energy from Richard Dormer, represents a very important and largely ignored outlook in Northern Ireland, one of political apathy born from 60s counterculture. He explains early on that he used to belong to group of political and social radicals that soon disintegrated into just two sides when the first shots were fired. This is what attracts him to the power of punk, and convinces him to produce a band he hears at a local gig. From then on in it is a roller-coaster at the expensive of his long suffering wife played by Jodie Whittaker whom is acts with saintly patience and restraint beyond the limits of my understanding. Perhaps she realizes that Terri is man of his place and time, to withhold him would be to deny the country a much needed outlet. But as he closes his hand to money, signing his bands off for no more than £500, it proves too much for her and their child, they separate  leaving him to his own destiny.

Taking the boys on tour proves a minor success, but when they're stopped by the army upon return to Belfast they are quizzed on their motives. 'You mean some of these boys are Catholics and some are Protestants?' Says the Sargent upon discovering where they all come from. 'I didn't think to ask.' Replies Terri. 'You ever think about becoming a politician?' Jokes the Sargent before waving them on their way. The real life Terri Hooley has turned down a career in politics despite avid support from a Facebook fan page, saying that 'There are enough fools in Belfast City Hall, they don't need another one.'

Though it lifts the majority of its structure and scenarios from the long history of music films, from grimy locals to music-video style montages, Good Vibrations cleverly undercuts the sub-genre by giving itself entirely to the music and saying balls to the rest. The label's only real success comes half way in through the film, with The Undertone's Teenage Kicks. What looks to launch Terri and his extended musical family into stardom is in reality, their peak. There are no false promises, no forced optimism, sometimes it is best to make do with what you can - and in that case, D'Sa, Leyburn and all the rest have got you covered.

Terri himself is beyond saving, something he accepts at the end as he takes the stage to bless his ever
lengthening guest list. His path is one of a comet in a head on collision with the earth, tailed by a relinquished passion for music and what it brings together. However localized, that is his victory, to burn up into the world with the brightest of blazes. So what is there left for him to do other an illuminate as many as he can, leading the apathetic-angst ridden Punk rebellion to the anarchy of Belfast's streets, after all, New York may have the haircuts, London may have the trousers but Belfast has the reason.

Good Vibrations has closed and reopened time and time again since its launch we are informed through a text box that sits below the last image of Terri looking down upon his followers, his friends and his people. And so it goes, and so it goes, victory is variable. But that which Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn hold is of the most triumphant order. Good Vibrations is a heart-filled ode to music, it's cross-generational, cross-national unitizing power and its ability to define and to lead an era. It is also an unapologetic chorus to the self-lead apathetic rebellion that in more ways than one, has held this country together over the years. Above all else though, and at time more relevant than any other, Good Vibrations is a love letter to the fiery heart that tears through the under belly of this fair city.


Friday, 29 March 2013

[Review] The Croods - Stone-aged.

The Croods (2013)

Directors - Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Country - USA
Starring - Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone
Running Time - 98 minutes
Synopsis - After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.

As film productions moves rapidly into the digital space, a migration sealed with Hollywood's approval in the Academy's awarding of Ang Lee's Life of Pi the 'Best Cinematography' award in this year’s Oscars, it marks the latest trek into uncharted space for many of 'traditional' filmmakers. Like sound, 16mm and CGI before it, this new digitally rendered camera opens up so many possibilities that were previously impossible and many directors tend to reach too high. Ang Lee's Life of Pi is one such example, who's tacky over-composed shots and weightless movements do very little to communicate the dangers and wonders of the subject matter, another such example would be Peter Jackson's The Hobbit which also lacked the tangibility that made The Lord of the Rings as success.

Such an issue is not present within the animated features of Pixar and the more recent Dreamworks pictures, most notably their 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon which offered up a jaw-dropping sense of aerial traversal and fight scenes that played with the concept of physical weight in a way most directors can only hope to achieve without losing its audience. Indeed The Croods too has a keen understanding of perpetual motion. In an opening set piece as the Crood pact attempt to make off with a giant egg for breakfast, the resulting chase is delightful exercise in cinematic perpetual motion and kinetic characterization.

Bearing that in mind, one can't help but see a Meta edge to Dreamwork's latest work The Croods, a story about a family of cave people forced to adapt in a new, unfamiliar environment with the help of a young but well adapted 'modern' boy.

Live by the rules of the ancestors. That is the only way to survive in the world of Eep, a teenaged cave-girl belonging to the Crood breed, the last of the cave-men. They are led by their father Grug, a man who teaches them always to be afraid as fear breeds survival. But one day Eep sneaks out and discovers Guy, a teenage wonderer, a modern man, filled with ideas on how to live in the wild, against the impending cataclysm of the forming continents.

The film is thinly plotted, hitting all the predictable notes in the correct tone as if the Croods and Guy's journey to 'tomorrow' are merely new lyrics to accompany a well-trodden piece of sheet music, complete with montage rifts and collective harmonies. Just as animations are getting bolder in their film making, they seem to becoming softer in their spirit. Just as Pixar frequently pushes themes of mortality and discontent, before chickening out, The Croods does nothing to communicate its sense of time and place in the same way Ice Age did 10 years ago, or The Land before Time in my age.

 However with the character's established roles and the film's narrative path so firmly trodden in front of it, the directors are now free to deliver some gorgeous and creative world design. Borrowing from all walks of life; the sea, the desert and the jungle the world that the Croods inhabit is one that is both familiar yet devilishly creative at times. You'll gaze at the strange hybrid of what appears to be a pig and blue whale, but will laugh in shock as it’s devoured by a flock of piranha parrots.

But there are earthly wonders here too, the magic of fire or ethereal power of the stars are captured with a childlike bewilderment here that even the likes of Terrence Malick could hope for. That is, until the Croods try to capture and eat the fire leading to the world’s largest popcorn bucket. The film strikes a nice balance between its visual wonderment and comical characterization to ensure there's never too much of one and not enough of the other.

A fact only helped by the terrific voice work from its cast. Emma Stone as Eep applies the tonality of a modern teenage girl onto the stone-age protagonist suggesting how little our family dynamic has changed really. Roamer turned unwilling boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds) on the other hand is a modern man. His concerns lie not just in survival but in his metrosexuality, one must out run the apocalypse but they must also do it with a tipped fringe and low-cut jeans. This is to the horror of father Grug, played by what can only be described as an expressive Nicholas Cage. His generation is based on strength not style and intelligence, but he must now realize his world is disappearing, but his place is not gone yet. In one scene he tries to steal a little of Guy's popularity with a few ideas of his own. His invention of sunglasses and wheel among other modern utilities things are met with raised eyebrows and slapstick humor; how necessary to our survival are these items? Are we to far gone as a race to revert to the caveman?

The supporting cast fill out the quota of comic relief, understated mother support and animal sidekick, but they do their jobs admirably ensuring that there is enough laughs for both parent and child. A personal favourite is the running gag between Grug and his ancient mother-in-law whom he constantly wishes for her timely demise only to be disappointed by her triumphant 'Still alive!' The world and the people may change, but the family dynamic is here to stay.

The Croods isn't going to lead us to the 'tomorrow.' It isn't the ideas man but neither is it the caveman. Instead, it finds a cute middle ground; opting to follow a path well-trodden in order to stop and show us some beautiful sights, have a few laughs upon the way and remind of the places cinema can take us, digitally rendered or otherwise.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

[Review] Stoker - The Family Blood

Stoker (2013) 

Director - Park Chan-wook
Country - South Korea, USA
Starring - Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Running Time - 98 Minutes
Synopsis - After India's father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Throughout his career, Korean director Park Chan-wook's films have each been centered on a single punctuated moment, a scene in which his protagonists come to a moment of pure, cataclysmic awakening. Often sexual, often violent, more often both - it represents an ultimate realization in the world Park Chan-wook belongs to, a point of no return at the loss of innocence and humanity itself, he gives his characters no choice but to give themselves to it. It is in the crazed eyes of Dae-su Oh when his nemesis twists the knife in one last time, or in the reinvigorated, reborn Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest turned vampire who finds himself enslaved by his desires. In his first English language film, Stoker, it is the soapy hands of Mia Wasikowska and never before has it been so rapturous, so alluring.

India is a girl who can 'see and hear what others cannot' whether that is a spider inching itself up the back of her leg, or the ominous presence of the uncle she didn't know she had, lurking on a nearby hill at her father's funeral. Soon after her mother announces that Charlie (as he is known) will be coming to stay with them triggering a series of disappearances and pushing the not-so-concealed matriarchal narcissistic envy to fever pitch.

Written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Stoker was named on the 2010 Black List, a list consisting of the top unproduced scripts circulating Hollywood before it eventually found itself in the hands of Park Chan-wook. The director, best known for a series of films dubbed The Vengeance Trilogy certainly brings a visceral theatricality the films proceedings. Regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung adds an unparalleled vampirish tone to the pastoral coloured walls in the Stoker household. Soft lighting, canted compositions and frayed movements distinguish the film with a degree of 'modern-gothicism.' An IKEA based form of expressionism, where twisted sets and heightened shadows have been replaced by the muted furnishings of the flat-pack. Though, like the ritual family dinner it is really all a surface facade. Just as their formal suggestions of post dinner entertainment and passing remarks about ice cream swirls mask ulterior motives and paternal resentment, the block colours and grand rooms give way to the cobwebbed and decaying basement (where, naturally, the aforementioned ice cream is kept.)

Sex and violence is what Park Chan-wook belongs too, as two sides of the same coin. For India, the girl with a fear of being touched, her growing attraction to Charlie thrusts her into a psychotic, twisted form of womanhood. The film moves into a state of male paranoia, as the female sexual awakening represents something much more dangerous. This doesn't so much seep into the films design, as it is soaked in it. Stoker is made of a direct, symbolic flamboyance that calls to mind the likes of Brian De Palma. De-leaded pencils dripping in blood, an abundance of sultry close-ups and a heightened creaking sound design deliver a thunderously charged atmosphere. 

Though the main influence is none other than Alfred Hitchcock, borrowing heavily from his 1943 film ,Shadow of a Doubt. François Truffaut once said that the Master of Suspense shot murder like a love scene, and a love scene like a murder - the same can be said for Park Chan-wook. But where Hitchcock had to skate round censors, here it has an abrasiveness that has carried over from Park Chan-wook's routes. This is made most obvious in an explicit shower masturbation scene, where the once cleansing act has been reversed into a surrendering to our primal desire. Thankfully the excellent, off-kilter yet quirk-free performance from Mia Wasikowska gives India the unsettling edge needed to back up the distanced and tested mother played by Nicole Kidman. Rounding out the performances are a surprisingly tongue-tied Jackie Weaver and a twinkly-eyed, soft spoken Matthew Goode who will no doubt be soaring to the top of every casting list for the next big Vampire flick.  

For all its artistically sculpted crafting, Stoker never manages to light the spark it sets. Miller's screenplay is too hinged on implausibility and one tell-all and ultimately underwhelming flashback. We are left waiting for that final twist of the knife that never comes. Instead, we get the creak of a belt, the aim of a scope and a splatter of blood too easily cleaned from the muted tones on which they plastered.


Thursday, 28 February 2013

[Review] Mama - Domesticated Demon

Mama (2013)

Director - Andrés Muschietti 
Country - USA
Starring - Jessica Chastain, Daniel Kash and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Running Time - 100 minutes
Synopsis - Annabel and Lucas are faced with the challenge of raising his young nieces that were left alone in the forest for 5 years.... but how alone were they? 

The notion of motherhood is one that has lent itself completely to horror down through history. The bond between mother and child is derived from such an intense physicality that the unyielding devotion and intimacy is so easily reversed and fractured. Through nature alone maternal relationships have a degree of specific psychological conditions; envy, overbearing narcissism and reflective anxieties that are ripe for the picking for any budding screenwriter. The surrogate mother removes this physicality, replacing it with more external and social factors that also been prayed upon in the horror genre. Look to Jack Clayton's 1961 cinematic translation of Henry James' Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, a ghost story created from sexual frustrations and hyper active custodial psychosis. It implemented these factors into the Freudian qualities of the set design, the harshness of its high-key lighting and the manic performance by Deborah Kerr to give us an atmosphere of psychological-frenzy, in other words, it's an intelligent ghost story born out of step-parent anxieties.

Now in 2013 we have Mama, by Andrés Muschietti, where any symbolism and psycho-analysis has been replaced with deathly clumps of hair and evil wallpaper.

Since her breakout performance Jessica Chastain has become signified with the role of the mother figure, most obviously in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life where she became the manifestation of grace. Her face houses a calming naturalism and unquantifiable homeliness. Something that she managed to shed completely in the critically acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, a film that highlights the unique force of the maternal instinct by it's total absence. Mia as she is known in that film, feels incomplete as a human because she has no family. So Mama then should feel like an extension of her cinematic undertakings thus far. She plays Annabel, a tattooed guitarist in a rock band hastily thrust into the role of a parent without ample preparation when her boyfriend's nieces show up five years after their homicidal father kidnapped them.

Chastain's jet black fringe and Misfits T-shirt fail to convince as she awkwardly strums a bass guitar whilst chugging down a bottle of Becks. Yet, as the burdened and disinterested carer she slips into the role pretty confidently, as if a reversal of her character in The Tree of Life - spending less time frolicking in the garden and more time pacing around the house, half-assedly doing menial chores. The film successfully rejects the formulaic responses of modern suburban horror films such as the Paranormal Activity series in which the light of day casts out the nightly bumps and the world returns to normal. Domestication is the real horror here as Annabel suddenly finds herself having to contend with snooping Aunts and accident prone kids. Chastain looks legitimately uneasy preparing dinners or loading the washing machine, and the lifeless cinematography does nothing but further our restlessness.

Inevitably, as one would expect when adopting forest dwelling children, creepiness befalls the household in the predictable fashion of monster closets and flickering lights. Not to outdo it's contemporaries for too long, it borrows a couple of floating blanket scares that no longer unite the audience through a chorus of 'Ohs' and 'Ahs.' Still, Mama has a number of tricks up it's withered sleeve, one of which being the feral kids crawling around on all fours similarly to Andy Serkis' Gollum. A base technique that manages to be pretty discomforting, especially in one early and quickly forgotten dream sequence. If only the director had taken the time to expand upon the underlying animalistic imprint that runs ingrained into our genetic code as a grotesque, outward projection of our development. But alas Mama settles for jump scares and monster closets, some well crafted, some not so much, but enough to ensure you're suitably on edge for the duration of it's running time. Yet one can't shake the feeling of directorial apathy. 

As the film's plot descends into melodramatic nonsense, including one rather harebrained psychiatrist who loses all notion of child psychosis or mental trauma in favor of trekking through the woods under the cover of darkness to contact the dastardly specter, it loses it's foothold in reality and descends into cliche. When the elongated, CGI-monstrosity that is 'Mama' begins to show up all the more frequently, most of your fear will diffuse through the overblown, over-Gothic design and silly audio effects. Though as unconvincing as the film's monster is, the ending is quite the opposite. Making a point about the unbreakable bond between child and mother at the most important age, it feels neither cheap nor out of place. But in the grand scheme of things it only hints at the ingenuity and intelligence that attracted Guillermo Del Toro to the project, just as he was The Orphanage back in 2007.

A great man once said a horror film is measured by its scares, and Mama is virtually over-encumbered with such a variety that it was sure to succeed in one way or another. Disappointingly it fails to draw upon the psychological issues that underscore the subject matter, and that have produced some of the genre's most beloved classics (see Rosemary's Baby.) It's neither as self-consciously clever as the likes last year's Sinister or immaculately precise as emerging-auteur Ti West's recent output. However the solid performances and interesting ending make sure it nestles comfortably above whatever passes for average in the American horror landscape, now isn't that a scary thought?