In his American film debut, director Andres Muschietti teams up with executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II) for the feature of his previous film short, Mama. Originally three minutes long, Muschietti’s Spanish short depicted two little girls attempting to get away from the creature dubbed “Mama.” It was very well received by its audience for the high amount of tension generated, and even produced a better rating than the feature length version. The plot of this film was actually very interesting and fresh, however, many characters, too many loose ends, and a borderline awful ending sunk the ship.
The movie opens with minimally explained chaos as a man kills a number of his business partners and deranged ex-wife and kidnaps his two girls, Victoria and baby Lilly. Driving away too fast on a snow-covered mountain, the man takes the car right over the side of the road and into the woods below. They walk until they find a seemingly deserted house, where, realizing the degree of stupidity attached to his crimes, the man decides to end it all in a murder suicide of him and the girls.
Before he can pull the trigger a twisted shadow kills him, leaving the girls alone in the cold wilderness for five years, until their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) find and take custody of them.
I don’t say this about too many movies, but the first half of this one is much better than the second. The girls are eventually found by two paid hunters who venture into the house to find them. Both girls have regressed into a primal nature. Some of the best footage in the film is watching them claw, growl, screech and run around the house on all fours like animals. Not only does it give a great idea of what they’ve been facing for the last five years, but the makeup and acting of the two young girls is ghostly good.
Having to adopt a motherly role after quitting her band isn’t something that Annabel looks forward to, and to bring her fears to life, Lucas immediately comes face to face with “Mama” and is knocked down the stairs. He is placed in the hospital with a coma. This event came way too early in the film and it’s too easy to predict that Annabel’s going to be left alone with the girls due to her dislike of them and the situation. It’s around this point in the plot where the acting breaks down and the focal point of the story is lost.
From what I’ve heard, Chastain is a wonderful actress. I’ve heard good things about her performance in The Help, and have yet to see how well she does in Zero Dark Thirty, but all I have to say is that her role in this film wasn’t the best first impression. Her interactions with the adult characters are somewhat convincing (but often short-worded) and she does a pretty good job of depicting fear, and at the end, sadness, but her biggest downfalls are the many scenes with the children. If they had kept Lucas out of the hospital longer, then the acting would’ve been top-notch. Instead, conversations are short, mindless and unproductive. One of the worst moments comes when Annabel approaches the girls’ ajar closet door. Victoria tells her, “Don’t open the closet,” to which she responds, “What’s in the closet,” receiving the epic response, “Nothing.” This ends the scene with her closing the door and walking out of the room. It’s the short, painful conversations like these that make suspenseful attempts downright lame.
The final point that’s bothersome is the ending. I thought that maybe they could pull off an original ending that made watching the ups and many downs worth the ride, but what myself and the rest of the audience was given was an overdose of horror clichés with mixed messages that seemed to be stressing family values. Many times Muschietti and del Toro begin to go in a “keep family close” direction, only to swerve back to poorly written dialogue, acting and plot points.
The entertainment value wasn’t terrible, but it came across as a good original idea that got caught up in the Paranormal Activity trend, sacrificing a worthy ending and potentially great acting for failed attempts at suspense and cheap scares. The first half was quite entertaining, but if you’re the kind of person that needs concrete story and a mind-blowing ending, this certainly isn’t the film for you. Five out of 10.