Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: MAMA: pushing the Del Toro button, the wrong one

Morning. Two angelic little girls at home. Their father bursts in and tells them to get ready. There is enough dishevelment around his bourgeois suityness for us to declare him insane and see what he's about to do. The girls' mother is nowhere to be seen or heard. We have already heard some radio reports of a crime and can now attribute it to crazy white collar dad who is now careening along a snowy road with his kids in the back. One innocently distracts him and the car spins and crashes in the icy forest below the road. Emerging from the wreckage the trio find a cabin nearby where they take shelter. Someone seems to already be there but we only see the vaguest glimpse of them. As Dad is going through the house his a pistol summoning the courage to put a bullet through his brain one of the girls says: "Daddy, there's a woman outside. Her feet aren't touching the floor."

At that second I thought: ok, assembly line horror but there's a shivery treat. And then BOO! the scene ends in a shock you know is coming. Credit sequence is a series of stock eerie children's drawings but there is also a name: Guillermo Del Toro. The great fabulist who rose in the nineties to show us how genre films don't have to be so ... generic. Right, I think, there'll be something worth watching here in all the standardised cine-decor.

Well, there is and there isn't.

The girls are discovered years later as scary looking ferals who move like the spider walk scene in the bloated recut of the Exorcist. They are reassimilated and join their uncle (who sent himself broke searching for them) and his girlfriend (a neogothed Jessica Chastain) and through a series of stock legal and psychiatric plot points the new ersatz family are settled in a large house outside their social spheres. Uncle Lucas and girlfriend Annabel meet the girls as they are delivered to their new home.

The younger of the two children hides behind her sister and whispers, "Mama." Annabel thinks Lilly is claiming her as a mother and is quick to  dismiss the notion. But we and the girls know different. It means that the woman from the cabin scene whose feet didn't touch the ground is going to be turning up and that Annabel, rock 'n' roller and self-centred narcissist is going to learn love and responsibility. From the opening, also we know that most of the horror of what we are to see will be a series of BOO! type scares and very little slowburning dread.

Horror from an assembly line, in other words. But is there anything of the Del Toro touch in this protege piece? Del Toro saw and admired director Muschetti's short film and engineered its transition from Youtube to the big screens o' the world. This happened a few times, particularly in Spain where young filmmakers, working on Del Toro and Amanebar's films and get to sit in the chair and call the shots. A really good result of this is Hierro, cruelly undersung slowfuse emotional thriller from a few years back. The idea that the seasoned masters' could keep the tyro from falling into cliche and blandness is an enticing one.

So why is Mama so unwaveringly cheesey? There are genuine scares and the atmosphere is maintained throughout but the amount of calculation boosting the effort spoils everything. The production values are Hollywood high and the orchestral score is bigger than a city block. Was this really the newcomer wanting this upgrade to everything? Upping the effects and score and fleshing out the tale so that the back story is present and unignorable? Maybe but I'm thinking that Del Toro himself was the one who came and poured the compounded popcorn butter on the project so that the short that I'll link to here ended up looking like overstuffed by-numbers guff like Insidious. Guillermo Del Toro whose best work never suffers from this but whose every Hollywood hack job is bursting with them was pumping up Muschetti's brilliant little short into a great bloated multiplex monster. I wonder, if Muschetti had insisted on making a Spanish language film (see the short for this) would GDT not have nurtured something a little more starkly original?

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