I define a good horror film by the dread that lingers in a desolate hallway, not jump cuts and deranged bloodletting. This is something that film maven Guillermo del Toro undeniably believes in. Through his own directorial work, del Toro has consistently placed sustained suspense over Hollywood shortcuts, and he has emphatically placed his stamp of approval on Mama. The film’s terse effect begins when two young girls, Victoria and Lilly, are taken to a remote location in the woods by their father, a man consumed with evil intentions. Thankfully, in a thrilling scene, a supernatural being saves the girls from a shortened life. The being is a female specter that assumes sole guardianship over the two girls. Five years after this unholy adoption, the girls, now covered in soot and speaking only in grunts, return to society after they’re found by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The two girls hesitantly move in with their uncle and his rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). But coming with the girls is the ghastly matriarch they’ve come to love. Her name is “Mama”, and she is ready to wreak havoc on anyone that intends to mitigate her parental duties.
The actual character design of Mama isn’t frightening by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, I find her rendering appalling, second-rate in many ways. But director Andy Muschietti doesn’t really give us a good look at the apparition until near the end. Instead, he impeccably utilizes lighting and sound effects to generate stomach churning results. Honestly, one of the more terrifying aspects of this film is the sound effect creeping out of Mama’s mouth, as she maddeningly groans through the night. Muschietti tests the constraints of our hearts even more with some ingenious staging, most of which finds little Lilly laughing and playing with shadows. Mood aside, Mama possesses a few deficiencies along the way. The evolution of the relationship between the girls and Chastain never quite feels authentic, but Chastain’s soulful presence elicits a strong emotional response. Also, the film’s ending feels a bit rushed. With Muschietti’s script taking its time in establishing the world we’re visiting, it curiously rumbles to a fastidious ending that underwhelms despite its relatively unique turn. Pacing issues aside, Muschietti has clearly crafted a film worth Guillermo del Toro’s praise and one worth our time.
Beautiful Creatures (3.75/5)
After Twilight made millions of teenage girls and middle-aged women gleefully cry at the multiplexes, Hollywood has desperately tried to find another franchise where two disparate souls stoically battle society, their parents, and their own lustful urges. Considering its lackluster box office run when it was released a few months ago, Beautiful Creatures will likely not find itself in the land of franchises, but it makes Twilight look inferior. Much like Twilight, Beautiful Creatures has a supernatural veil over its boy meets girl scenario, albeit in a far more entertaining way. The film’s romantic wave begins with Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), a southern tongued boy who desperately wants to leave his hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina. Fed up with his town’s religious overtones, they have an extensive list of banned books, Ethan dreams of wiping his mind clear of Gatlin. Naturally, it’s at this point that a new girl in town captures his attention. The subject of Ethan’s wandering eyes is Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a girl the town deems a miscreant. Rumors suggest Lena is a bad seed, but in reality, she’s actually a witch. Sorry, that’s a derogatory term in her world. She is actually a caster, which is essentially a witch, but more serious. Nonetheless, once she turns 16, Lena is either claimed by the dark or the light side of the caster world.
Enter in the enjoyable talents of Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, and Jeremy Irons, all of which intend to direct Lena down varying paths. Lena’s anchor in the maelstrom of decisions is obviously Ethan. Listen, the bubbling romance between Ethan and Lena is wholly predictable, but there’s a great deal of charm and zeal between the two leads that their love ultimately works on-screen. Both own a cinematic magnetism, unlike the goofballs spitting Stephanie Meyer’s trite. Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of Beautiful Creatures is how it embraces its aloof, overtly sexual premise and runs with it. From Emma Thompson’s manic, over the top performance to the film’s devious humor, Beautiful Creatures finds comfort in its absurd existence. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments where Beautiful Creatures vainly shifts into more serious plot points, but often its attempts are undercut by delightful moments of camp. Admittedly, the film’s run time is a bit strenuous, as it leaves us spending an inordinate amount of time hovering over Lena and her decision to turn one way or another. Her final decision should’ve been a half hour shorter, but the film’s inspired style and fantastical southern drenched premise are highly entertaining. If anything, Beautiful Creatures deserves a watch because it has something Twilight doesn’t: a personality.