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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Jessica Chastain stars in "Mama."

"Mama" raises a creepy horror tale worth losing sleep over


Finally!

Cross one of my goals off my New Year's resolutions list, because "Mama" is actually pretty good. I'm not going to say "Mama" is the heir apparent to "The Exorcist" or anything like that, but you know what? It's creepy, it's a good bit scary and while none of the characters are going to get invited to a Mensa gathering anytime soon, at least I wasn't wondering if my protagonist had drunk a lead paint smoothie recently (most of the time). If I had confetti right now, I'd be throwing it.

"Zero Dark Thirty" star and Best Actress frontrunner Jessica Chastain plays Annabel, a punk rocker chick living with her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, more commonly known as Jaime Lannister on "Game of Thrones").

As with everyone these days, they're tight on money, and Lucas's desperate hunt for his dead brother's children – who disappeared five years ago after his brother went on a shooting rampage at work – isn't helping.

One day, however, the five-year manhunt finally turns up the two girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse), who have been living alone (or have they!?) in a cabin, surviving off of cherries and turning into horrifyingly malnourished, feral creatures.

With the help of a mysterious psychologist (Daniel Kash, mumbling ominously), the two girls are fed and rehabilitated into society – though the youngest child still runs around on all fours and climbs on the furniture like an animal.

But something else comes home with the two girls: an ghastly apparition that the girls call Mama. At first, Annabel and the psychologist think it's just a coping mechanism from their many years abandoned in the woods, but after several strange occurrences and the girls' peculiar behavior, it seems like Mama might be very real and possibly very dangerous.

"Mama" tells a fairly routine story, but looking for originality in mainstream horror these days is like looking for an ice cube in hell. What makes writer-director Andres Muschietti's gothic-tinged modern fairy tale, adapted from his own 2008 short film, a sweet surprise is how consistently creepy it is. Instead of completely relying on quick edits, gore and overeager jumps, Muschietti calmly lets his scenes play out, building tension and mood.

Impatient viewers (unfortunately the typical audience for PG-13 horror fare) may not be impressed with Muschietti's slow burn, moody methodology, but it's shiver-inducingly effective. Two particular sequences – both taking place in the girls' bedroom – calmly let a seemingly normal moment become supernatural with almost no excessive punctuation on the filmmaker's part. Mixed with producer Guillermo del Toro's signature gothic themes, tone and surprising heart, "Mama" feels chilling and unique even despite its familiarity.

The tattoo-clad Annabel isn't exactly a demanding role – she's in no mood to be a mother, much less to two psychologically scarred little girls she has no personal attachment to – but she features a lot more depth and character than the usual horror movie heroine (whose bland personalities normally consist solely of being pretty and screaming well). Having Chastain, a very skilled, natural performer who's on quite a winning streak, in the lead role helps as well.

For everything "Mama" does so exceptionally well, however, it equally missteps. For all of Muschietti's meticulously crafted creepiness, he still sneaks in a few loud jump scares (including one particularly groan-inducing fake-out). Some of the dialogue is mind-drubbingly obvious, and the screenplay doesn't seem to know what to do with its several subplots, causing Coster-Waldau to meander aimlessly through the woods for no reason.

Also, though Mama herself is a creepy horror movie creation – a gaunt, crooked ghoul that hauntingly floats and oozes into her scenes – I think Muschietti reveals her too early. Mysterious specters are more interesting when they remain mysterious.

When "Mama" makes these silly mistakes, it almost feels like a betrayal because it does so much so well. It's the kind of film that's good enough to make me wish it was just a little better. But it's been a long, long time since I've been able to say a horror movie was anywhere close to good or at least creepy. It's not perfect, but the fact that Muschietti's film is above mediocrity easily places it well above every other horror movie in the past year.



Theaters and showtimes for Mama
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