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Young Megan Charpentier, after her first look at the script for Andres Muschietti's  Mama.
Mama mia!  Is there no end to the suffering that will result from bank deregulation?  How many lives have been affected for the worse?  How many national economies thrown into chaos?  How many men  driven to shoot financial firm partners, do the same to their estranged wives, drag their confused children on strange odysseys that culminate in gangly shape-shifting 19th-century ghosts wringing their sorry necks before playing mother to those increasingly feral children for five years, the poor waifs subsisting on a diet mainly of cherries?  How many?!!   Well, as for that last scenario, I feel safe in proclaiming the answer to be an unambiguous one, and that courtesy of the operatically silly Mama from writer and director Andres Muschietti.

Most of the above takes place before the opening titles arrive in Mama.  Then it's five years hence from the dark days of 2008 and we're in the hipster digs of Lucas, whose thorough cliche of a goth-rocker grrlfriend, Annabel, is sitting in the bathroom, waiting for the results of a home pregnancy test.  She's thrilled to see the negative sign appear.  Only much later will her maternal instincts manifest themselves as she battles the decidedly overzealous motherly ministrations of the titular "Mama."  Lucas is the brother of Jeffrey, the wretched father who disappeared with his girls five years earlier.  Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays both brothers, adding a beard to play the latter.  The emotion he evinces as the anguished brother Jeffrey is one of the few things that can be taken at all seriously in Mama.  

As Annabel, it's actually Jessica Chastain under that bob of black hair, behind all the mascara.  I must admit, I did't realize until Mama was well underway.  Where is Jessica Chastain, I wondered?  I thought perhaps she might be playing the dark force which to that point had only been seen whisking here and there, occasionally rearing like some demonic tree.  That bold casting might have made all of this more interesting, or at least given the poor ghost better bone structure.  Such a committed bad ass is Annabel that it seems quite appropriate when we see her chewing not a rope of red, but black licorice while conversing with an equally punky friend, both  characters and their feeble dialog like relics of a dumpster dive through Diablo Cody writing castoffs.

You didn't sign up for this, babe, admonishes Annabel's friend.  But Annabel stands by her man, packs up all her band t-shirts, cleavage-advertising black tank tops and some artfully blotched, skin-tight grey jeans - a crime unto fashion if not humanity - and moves in with Lucas and the girls.  At least she stands by until "Mama" pokes a spiky limb out of a wall one evening and sends Lucas, crashing down a stairway and into a local hospital, where in lays in a coma for some time, thus clearing the stage for the film's star.  Why Mama doesn't immediately dispense with Annabel in like fashion is but one of many such prosaic questions that the film's script finds it unnecessary to address.

Zero Dark Purty - Jessica Chastain going  a bit goth in Mama.
Far fetched though it might be, there's potential in the premise of Mama.  Children left to fend for themselves; the sometimes dark turns of a young mind, especially in such an extreme situation; the greater sensitivity that the very young seem to possess to supernatural agents  - just a few of the angles rich enough with storytelling possibility.  And through it's first half or so, Mama wisely keeps its ghost in the shadows, or at least behind the louvered doors of a bedroom closet.  It's difficult enough for any horror film to work when it show its dark hand, all the more so when the spook in question is as random and ridiculous a product of special effects as is the case with Mama's 19th-century cliff diver forever in search of her lost child.

Mama apparently is apparently based on Mr. Muschietti's Spanish-language (he's from Argentina)  short of the same name.  Would that he had made it shorter.  Shortest.  The script is credited to him, Barbara Muschietti (his sister) and the English writer Neil Cross.  Mr. Cross, at least, is an accomplished writer with a varied and in some cases acclaimed body of work.  From a writer of his experience one would expect the awareness that at least a semblance of logic is necessary to successfully propel even the most fanciful of stories.

Let us grant Mama all the many and varied abilities possessed by its ghost to operate blissful beyond the laws of man and physics:  she zips to and fro, she does at times sprout and unfold like a tree possessed; at other times she sweeps around the floor like a mop from hell, like Cousin It of the Addams Family sans the charm; here she conceals herself in a closet and there she bores right into and then out of walls.  Fine, she's a ghost.

Granting all of the above as an audience in search of a few thrills might, there are unfortunately a barrage of inconsistencies that only the happily coma-bound like Lucas could overlook.  Why would the protective mother allow Victoria and Lilly to be taken from her in the first case, when they are found by the beflanneled pair of searchers on whom Lucas had been draining his meager savings during the five years since the disappearance of his brother and niece?  Was she out collecting cherries (no doubt oblivious to season)?  And why, might one ask, cherries?  When the two searchers happen upon the scorched cabin, they find a veritable mound of cherry pits standing like a cairn in the kitchen.  This perhaps the preferred foodstuff of restless spirits?  And speaking of odd dietary choices, there are the moths on which  the older, feral version of Lilly devours as if happily crunching potato chips.  This practice leaves her looking rather unclean of mouth, as one might expect.  As if the poor kid didn't have enough troubles.  The moths seem to accompany "Mama," tend to emerge out of the black ringed holes in walls that the spirit creates for herself like infernal blow holes or portals.  Moths figure prominently in Mama's ludicrous climax.  But again, wherefore? one might ask.  There is the surprising restraint that the violent, jealous "Mama" demonstrates with regard to the Annabel, as if warned by an overzealous producer to take it easy on the high-priced talent.  And there's the curious phenomenon of a supernatural being who can practically occupy two places at the same time, but yet cannot somehow win a race through a house with a couple of children fleeing on their little legs from her presence in fear for their lives.  Toward the end of detailing just some of the inconsistencies and absurdities in Mama, one would be quite remiss in omitting Dr. Dreyfuss.  In the dubious tradition of movie shrinks, Dr. Dreyfuss is yet another supposed medical practitioner hell-bent to pursue his obsession - in this case the girls and the strange story they tell of "Mama" - oblivious to the well-being of almost everyone involved, including his clueless self.  "Don't go in there," is the immemorial thought and cry of horror movie audiences.  And yet, of course, once more unto that breach, into the strange, dark cabin Dr. Dreyfuss goes, his daytime trek made suddenly, conveniently night, as is the case with Lucas' subsequent trip to the same location.  When the inevitable confrontation between man and ghost occurs, the doctor tries to capture the movements of the former mental asylum escapee with the flash of his camera.  As the tension flows and mainly ebbs in Mama, this is a fairly effective sequence.  But whom, might one ask, is holding the camera, activating the flash, when we see the doctor meeting his demise?

Of course, a scary movie works or it does not.  It scares or it does not scare.  Mama does inadvertently entertain after a fashion, but it grows only more laughable instead of frightening as it proceeds.  The more we see of its ghost, the more ridiculous Mama gets.  When assuming its most human form, the spirit looks rather like Rocky Dennis from Mask having a very disappointing afterlife.

Some of those initial cabin scenes speak to the potential in the story wasted.  There's the moment at the outset when the desperate father is about to murder Victoria.  He first removes her glasses so she can't see what is about to happen.  When they get the blurred, myopic point of view of the girl as some dark something yanks her father away and lurks across the wasted living room.  When the two searchers arrive five years later, there is creepy flitting of the girls about the house and finally together on a kitchen perch.  Young Lilly is especially frightening, the one-year-old blonde cherub having transformed into a growling quadruped.

Mama does provide its requisite instances of seat-springing fright.  And a half dozen or so of such cheap thrills are apparently enough for audiences to plunk down their ten or twelve dollars on a Saturday night.  But there's a significant difference between real, lurking dread and sudden shocks, the product of some shadow, some spook appearing in the frame from nowhere, the moment greatly augmented by phony sound effects amplified in rich Dolby sound.  The latter, like Mama, have no lasting effect.  You settle back into your seat, your breathing slows and wait for the next cheap thrill.  Real horror strikes deeper and is felt longer.  I'm still haunted by the sight of John C. Reilly's bare ass in Walk Hard.

We find out that Victoria was old enough at the time of being rendered an orphan to sustain a connection to language.  Poor Lilly, the one who clings most steadfastly to "Mama," is left with utterances consistent with her rather primal habits of movement and interaction.  As she does eventually speak a few words, it sounds as the she's been spending more time in Bulgaria than a North American cabin.  Eventually, Victoria begins to break away from the thrall of their long-time ghostly guardian.  After some time in the house with Annabel, Lilly wakes up Victoria and with her monosyllabic utterances, tells her that Mama is here and it's time to play.  "Victoria not go," says the older sister, turns over and closes her eyes.  Words to live by, if you haven't yet seen Mama.  You not go either.  Alas, too late for me not go.



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