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?


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