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Mama (15)
Cineworld, O2
19th February 2013

★★★☆☆

As visionary a director as Guillermo Del Toro is, when it comes to producing (or executive producing, as here), he's distinctly hit and miss. It ranges from the sublime (Biutiful) to the ridiculous (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark) via a few kiddy flicks (Megamind, Puss in Boots) thanks to his association with Dreamworks Animation. So where does his latest pet project, Mama, stand? Well, frankly, somewhere in the middle.

Based on his own short film of the same name, director and co-writer Andrés Muschietti presents a creepy tale that's so obviously inspired by Del Toro's previous output, it's no surprise that he backed it. A focus on children? Check. Magical realism? Check. A bit of ghostly goings-on? All present and correct. But it's not just a mindless clone, and there's a fair bit on offer aside from just the by-numbers scares.

Here, gothy rocker Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and her artist boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are left to reluctantly care for his nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) after they're found living alone and feral, surviving only with the help of the mysterious Mama. Obviously, this Mama doesn't take too kindly to her children being taken away and when she hospitalises Lucas, it's left to Annabel to keep an eye on the kids, while (in an ill-advised and largely pointless subplot) fending off a custody attempt from their aunt Jean (Jane Moffat).

For the mostpart, this is your typical modern horror film cribbing tropes left, right and centre. As noted, we have the creepy kids (see The Shining, Children of the Damned, The Ring, The Grudge), the helpful therapist trying to unravel the mystery of Mama in Daniel Kash's Doctor Dreyfuss (compare it to Halloween). The character development, however, is rather nice. I would suggest this is thanks to co-writer Neil Cross who has done admirable work on Luther and the BBC's remake of Whistle and I'll Come to You.

Blatantly not ready for children and somewhat disaffected, Chastain carries the film on her shoulders - she's not the hate figure she could so easily be. It's another left-turn character-wise for her, and as with her previous disparate rolls, she hits the perfect note. Others fare less well, with Kash's one-note child psychologist looking so much like Tony Shalhoub, you're left thinking how much better a job he could have done. The children, for the mostpart, are effectively creepy, with Nélisse particularly effective as the damaged, animalistic Lilly.

While it falls victim to a series of tired horror standards, it does manage to sidestep others. Chastain's Annabel is at least vaguely intelligent. When, at one point, Victoria tells her not to open a cupboard - Mama's hiding place - she does the wise thing and leaves it alone. In many slasher films, the characters may suffer for their stupidity but they're at least cut a break here. The jump-scares are also obviously out in abundance but again they're more subversive, in that the threat is actually the one causing the shocks rather than, say, a cat jumping off a shelf. Odd cuts to the mundane (and even comical) immediately after are jarring, and Muschietti never seems to provide an overall sense of dread as well as other directors.

The climax is telegraphed and any seasoned filmgoer will catch on within minutes, but ultimately it's more satisfying than lazy, and visually stunning. One thing that's sure to divide audiences, though, is the use of a CG Mama that people are calling effective and appalling in equal measure. It's largely motion captured from actor Javier Botet, who is undoubtedly excellent as the contorted witch, yet his on-screen appearance has drawn fire. For my money, the ethereal, wispy Mama is certainly cartoonish, but no more than a lot of Del Toro's Pan's Labrynth creations. It's a stylistic choice that I agree with, even if others don't.

Mama isn't a patch on Del Toro's own work - nor is it hugely scary. As far as modern horror films go, it's a cut above the torture porn of your Saws or mindless slasher remakes and at least has a protagonist you care about. If you're seeing this off the back of Del Toro's executive producer credit, though, do yourself a favour, stay at home and watch another, superior, film he produced - The Orphanage.

Mama was released in the UK on 22nd February 2013.

Nearest tube station: North Greenwich for the O2 (Jubilee)



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