Sunday, 3 March 2013

"A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again."

In 2008, Argentinian siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti created a three-minute short simply titled Mamá. It featured little more than two young girls being menaced by a contorted, wild-haired, watery spectre. Beautifully shot, simple and terrifying, it attracted the interest of Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth). Small wonder, as executive producer on the likes of The Orphanage (2007) and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010) del Toro clearly has a passion for childhood ghost stories. Now five years later, the Muschetti's have turned their online sensation into a full length feature thanks to the championing of del Toro. Del Toro himself takes another executive producer role on the feature, whose influence is both immediate and palpable.

Expanding on the original shorts premise, this supernatural chiller tells the haunting story of two young sisters who are abandoned in a forest cabin the day their mother was murdered. Whilst there they are fostered by an unknown entity that they fondly call Mama. But when the girls are miraculously rescued five years years later and brought back to suburbia to begin a new life with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), they find that Mama still wants to come and tuck them in at night.

Whilst Mama is a cut above your regular recent spooky shockers such Insidious (2011) or The Possession (2012), it overlaps possibly too much with the likes of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark and Daniel Radcliffe's post-Potter vehicle The Woman In Black (which also featured a child-menacing, homicidal mother ghost). It’s easier to set up a single, inexplicable horror scene than it is to string together a series of them into a coherent narrative, and Mama doesn’t quite manage it. The opening falls back on the old trick of the criminal listening to radio news reports of his misdeeds to fill in back story, plus there’s a drawn-out strand about a double-dealing shrink obsessed with a 19th-century ghost that only serves to leave all too convenient plot information on a laptop.

Mama also shows its hand way too early and plainly. The ghost appears before the credits, so we already know what the girls’ problem is while their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Chastain) are playing catch up. The currently busy Jessica Chastain (The Tree Of Life, Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty) is almost unrecognisable as the black-haired pixie-punk rock chick Annabel, who doesn’t want kids yet winds up as surrogate mother to the young girls.

Aided by Gabriel Gutiérrez's brilliant sound design, it's the smaller, less obvious moments in the first half that make for bigger jumps than the manifestations that come later, reducing the title menace to little more than an attention-seeking special effect. That said, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse as the haunted semi-feral sisters, are great and Chastain brings a much needed touch of class to proceedings. In all, despite it's overuse of good effects, this has enough shocks and screams to make it a decent cinematic ghost story. It also makes Andy Muschietti a man worth looking out for in the future.

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