Film Review: Mama

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Along with the recent and self-reflexively titled Insidious and Sinister, Mama makes something of a contraceptive trilogy. All three place a demon, or demonic refugee from the afterlife, in a house with a dysfunctional family and a gaggle of half-pints but it’s the demon that lurks in adult minds that each remarkably similar movie attempts to coax. It’s that dissonant nook in your brain that’s been reared to believe that children represent innocence and the absence of malice, while secretly and simultaneously suspecting that these proto-humans, with their still-embryonic conception of morality and lack of social awareness, represent something of a danger to the carefully ordered adult world. In other words, they’re little bastards and unchecked, potentially dangerous.

If the earlier movies in this menstrual celebration cycle never questioned the fundamentals; that is the adult’s instinct to parent their children despite supernatural obstacles; Mama has at least one wheeze – an adult that shares the audience’s suspicion that child rearing is balls-out idiocy; an idea as black and hard to manage as a jagged shard of jet mined from a Whitby cliff face.

Jessica Chastain plays the sceptic; the economically inactive member of a rock band, arms resplendent with tattoos, mop of dyed back hair abound, who reluctantly agrees to co-shoulder the burden when her boyfriend’s hitherto missing nieces are found after five years. They’re discovered feral and bent into a creepy, unnatural configuration – like giant spiders. Anomic, metrosexual singletons take note: this is disturbing because kids don’t usually look this way.

The blame lies with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s washed up executive, whose response to the 2008 economic crash is to kill his wife and drive his two young children into the middle of nowhere, intending to murder them, before a car smash and a crazed maternal spectre, a sort of dead social services, intervenes. “I’m not cut out for this,” Chastain tells Waldau, who by now is occupying a new role as the concerned Uncle who wants to bring up the kids, and she’s more right than she knows. The thing the readymade brood call “Mama” doesn’t want another woman muscling in on her wards and so the stage is set for large-scale domestic disturbance.

Amongst the requisite unsettling elements – eerie kid drawings, moaning, a monster in your bed, a monster in your closet; in other words, all your childhood fears stoked up; Mama is a movie in search of what you might call a maternal equilibrium. In the dead camp, there’s the eponymous sprite, whose murderous bent is anchored in grief for a baby she once lost, causing her to become crazed to the point she’s facially palsied. In the land of the living there’s Chastain’s Annabel, who thinks kids are like proper jobs: malevolent in nature, whose teats start to tingle as the movie progresses and she’s left to suckle both girls. It all amounts to a house of wounded women; all, you sense, damaged from the inside out. This is the single point of differentiation from the gruesome twosome that this largely house bound shocker echoes in design and execution. Is it enough? Well, it seems churlish to admonish Andrés Muschietti for pushing our buttons so effectively for much of the running time, but one wonders how many variations on this increasingly well-worn theme remain. Your best guesses please.

Directed by: Andrés Muschietti

Country: Spain/Canada

Year: 2013

Running Time: 100 mins

Certificate: 15 for a bad rock band, baby bones, kids in boxes and the continued vilification of the medical profession.

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