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I was ridiculously excited about seeing Mama. Although I’m cautious of films which attach the name of a famous director like a badge of honour, I have enough trust in del Torro not to involve himself with total trash. How much my confidence rests upon having obstinately avoided the Katie “Ex-Stepford Wife” Holmes infested Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has yet to be seen. I can’t avoid it forever. Who knows, it may not be as bad as I think. Her character might, for instance, die horribly. But I digress. 

I’m a fan of del Torro. His style of horror – which merges folklore, dark fairytales and the terror of childhood with stunning visuals and poignant story lines – is sublime. Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage and The Devil’s backbone are amongst my favourite horrors. All contain his trademark visual style which is both darkly beautiful and horribly alluring.

While only attached to Mama as an executive producer, this film still bears many of his trademarks in terms of both plot and style: extensively developed child characters, the horrors of childhood, the tantalising glimpse into another, darker world beneath our own, the seductive promise of folklore and mystery.

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So now I’m going to ruin the whole film for you. Why? Because I’m evil? No. Because this film merits some close attention. So seriously – if you haven’t watched it yet and don’t want spoilers stop reading now.

The film begins with a father fleeing the authorities with his two young daughters. It soon becomes apparent that he has murdered his wife. Aggressive towards his children and clearly disturbed, he crashes his car on a deserted forest road. Setting out on foot through the snow they discover an abandoned cabin in the woods.

Aside: There’s nothing wrong with using movie clichés!  They are clichéd for a reason. A cabin is a desolate and isolated location,  on the borderland of civilisation. A man-made setting amidst the barbarity of nature. And they look devilishly creepy too.

It is at the cabin that things get decidedly supernatural very quickly.  The elder of the two daughters informs her father that there is a strange lady outside – whose feet don’t touch the ground. I really liked this moment in the film and it introduces a central  point. The innocence of the children and the way in which they accept Mama, despite her supernatural and disturbing presence, is in itself chilling. They are not afraid of this creature. They come to love her, even though she shows herself to be malevolent and vicious when dealing with others.

During his brief sojourn at the cabin daddy has other things on his mind: to whit, the most expedient way to murder his own children and then off himself. Mama intervenes at the moment of violence, killing the father and, to a limited extent, taking over as the parent of the two girls.

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Parenting skillz. She has them. Haha.

Then we meet uncle Lucas and girlfriend Annabel who have spent all teh monies left to them by daddy in a constant hunt to find the girls. Eventually they are found and – on the advice of a highly suspicious psychiatrist – Lucas and Annabel take over the care of the feral tots.

It quickly becomes apparent to Annabel that something has followed the girls from the wilderness and into their new home. They talk to the walls, whisper “Mama” and revere their wardrobe. Clearly this is not Narnia, however, as the dislocated fingers press through the mildew encrusted portal and summarily push Lucas down the stairs amidst the flutter of moth wings and the creep of corrupting miasma.

Thus Annabel is left in sole charge of the orphans with no one to assist her but the suspicious head doctor, who is clearly more interested in his own career progression than the well-being of the two girls.

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Doesn’t need words.

I really need to hammer home at this point just how amazing these two young actresses are. Megan Charpentier as the older sister gives a conventional but moving performance. She has some memories of her life before the cabin and therefore is less feral that her younger sibling. She portrays the cautious innocence and heart-breaking anxiety of Victoria superbly, without ever straying into maudlin over exaggeration or precocious tedium. Isabelle Nélisse as Lily is utterly show-stopping. Her fierce devotion to Mama, as the only parental figure she has ever known, is frightening in its simplicity. She is never pitiable, nor tiresome in her struggles – she presents us with a lost girl, seeking to express herself yet puzzled by the new world she has been thrown in to. She is utterly mesmerising.

The adult cast are acceptable, but there is an overwhelming feeling that they are there simply to provide a framework for the girls’ story. Each of them is acted off the screen by the child cast. Jessica Chastain as Annabel s the best of an adequate bunch, but her character is somewhat predictable and totally lacking in subtlety. Despite that, she does have several moving scenes, particularly when Lily, in the midst of an enraged fit, strikes Annabel across the face but is confused and finally calmed by the warmth of her new parent’s breath: a reminder of the deathly half-life she has subsisted on before this point.

Then there’s Mama. This is the short film that inspired this movie:

I liked the look of Mama in this trailer – but she is disturbing because of the way she moves and not because of the crappy CGI. That’s why when I saw this, I was really excited:

That is one of the most genuinely disturbing things I have seen in a long time. It’s so subtle, so alien, so chilling in its simplicity, the subversion of the familiar, the horror of the forlorn…I love it. And have you ever seen a movie FX test that was scarier than the finished product? Well…

YOU HAVE NOW!!! 

Because after all of that promise, the intrigue, the mystery and sadness, what we end up with in the finished product is this…this….thing:

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MY EYES!!!

WTF?! How did you manage to from the sublime to the absolutely shit? And believe me when I say, this is one of the better images. Why go to the trouble of hiring talent like Javier Botet and then…what…shoving half a pound of shoddy prosthetics latex god damn rubber over his face? Oh yea guys, you really kept the CGI to a minimum…

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Thank god, because the horrific attempts at using CGI are so bad that they actually kill braincells. The worst part being the finale, where Mama pops up like a spectral jack-in-the-box, a spectacle so ludicrous I actually couldn’t stop myself from laughing, very loudly, in the cinema.

The performance, to be fair, is great, the scrabbling, sinewy, twisted and disjointed movements performed by the actor are fabulous … but then you see that face. Oh god that face.

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Derp?

From the moment you see Mama’s face, and you realise you are basically confronted with an angry Derpina, the horror is sucked out of this film faster than fat out of a super-model’s backside. Or cocaine off the toilet seat and up Kate Moss’ nose. Or the piss ripped out of Kristen “Duck Face” Stewart’s attempts at acting. I’m drifting…

Everything about Mama is ultimately a massive let down. There was a great deal of promise that this would turn out to be more than the typical Dead Chick Flick – but for the final 30 minutes of the film, every predictable, stupid cliché is rammed home. I really wanted Mama to be some ancient spirit, witch, or something…ANYTHING other than a bloody “wronged female ghost.” PLEASE – enough with the Hollywood endings. If she had to be a ghost, you could have at least made her an original ghost. Not this regurgitated bullshit. Over and over again.

Leave the mystery in tact. Don’t forcibly explain everything away to the level of a maudlin melodrama.

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