Friday, August 2, 2013

Film review: Mama

Let's amputate the fancy preamble and cut to the chase about this movie. I don't have a good segue for it, and it seems so clear to me in the light of day that I want to jump right in.

Watching the Guillermo del Toro produced MAMA was like reading a story out of sequence. Being an aficionado of horror movies featuring frustrated ghosts, I know the drill. Spooky happenings, the skeptic explains it away, the believer does some research and finds a juicy story, activity ramps up, maybe the ghost is finally seen to prove its existence, they realize they have to do something to appease or banish the ghost, and in some films that works and in others it totally doesn't and they're all hosed.

I'm not picky, I like films that stick to that formula, and I like films that experiment with it– as long as they do whatever they're doing well, and in a conscientious way. I think it's generally accepted in creative arts that while it's important to know and follow certain established rules, that one can also bend and break them as long as one knows why they are doing so. In other words, don't just ignore the standards for no reason. That's my feeling about any film, but especially horror films and most importantly, horror films in a specific sub-genre that I'm well-versed in.

In MAMA, two girls (Victoria and Lilly) are abandoned in an old cabin after their father kills their mother, then is dispatched himself by some presence living in the cabin. Years later, the girls, now feral, are found and given to their uncle Lucas and his rocker girlfriend Annabel. Annabel, by the way, should have been much more three-dimensional than she was. The actress was fine, I just wasn't that impressed with the character. As everyone settles in to a new house, the girls continue to talk about someone they call Mama, and strange things begin to happen. A psychiatrist interested in profiling the girls uncovers more and more of Mama's story, as Annabel tries to get closer to Victoria and Lilly, with dangerous consequences.

Now... I'm not totally convinced that MAMA broke the rules it did for a reason. If so, I can respect that; but it didn't totally work. For one thing, um... anti-spoiler alert? There's no twist. Not really. At the end, you have a little more information than you did at the beginning, but it doesn't change anything. They show you the ghost right off the bat, and you find out her story pretty early on. This is part of the out-of-sequence problem. The story would have been much more effective if they had left out all visual evidence of the ghost until much later in the story. It would have created doubt in the viewer, that perhaps there really isn't a ghost. It would have been scarier wondering if a supernatural creature was following the girls, rather than knowing it was. They could have gradually introduced the story of the ghost's death and led up to a more effective climax where we find out OH MY GOD she is real, and she's this woman they've been researching, and this is why she is the way she is. A little bit of mystery goes a long way.

Of course, MAMA would probably be called cliched and predictable if it followed the ghost formula more closely, but I'd rather have that than no mystery at all. That's part of the fun of the ghost story. I kept guessing and guessing other scenarios throughout the movie, wondering when they'd warp my mind with some brilliant twist. When that didn't happen, I just got irritated.

My feelings about the story's execution aside, it is exactly my type of story. Just starting the movie off the way they did, establishing the abandonment of the two sisters, would have been different enough than usual ghost fare to make me feel this was a unique film. The girls who played Victoria and Lilly were great. The film looked amazing, except for some of the ghost's scenes. The CGI was not really a great way to go, or at least not the way they did it. There were other scenes that were fantastic because they were so different, or such a clear blend of international influences. There was enough to like about the film, but with a few little changes it could have been GREAT, and I'd be raving instead of deconstructing the story. I love deconstructing stories and all, but I like great movies even better.

The short version? Not great, not terrible, a little mixed-up, but it was a cool premise and looked awesome.

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