Mama (2013)

★★★

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Release Date: January 18th, 2013 (US); February 22nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier

Although no director’s chair with his name on existed during filming, Mama has Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints laden all over it. He is an executive producer this time, and the del Toro checklist brims with ticks in reference to this solid fantasy-horror outing that benefits a great deal from the presence of Jessica Chastain. Details are intricate and refined; visuals spring off the screen with life; harmonious sounds glide around with an air of mysticism. And just like in some of del Toro’s previous work (such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark) the plot centres around an engaging, young female — only Mama demands two of them.

After murdering his wife and business colleagues then crashing his car in the snowy wilderness, troubled Jeffery is killed by a mysterious force that appears to be protecting his two daughters, Victoria and Lilly, from sharing a similar fate to that of their mother. Sometime later, a search for the missing girls funded by Jeffery’s twin brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) proves successful and the two sisters are slowly reintegrated back into society under the parentage of Lucas and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). However as time passes it becomes clear through consistently strange and distant behaviour that all is still not right with the girls.

Long gone are the days of atmospheric mind annihilation delivered by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or even nerve shredding tension served up during Alien. In 2013, you’d do well to uncover a film boasting these cherished characteristics of psychological horror and this is partially why we are subject to so many remakes and/or reboots. Creative ideas are at a premium (though not entirely obsolete) therefore the average mainstream horror output seems to be upping the technical anti as a compromise. Therefore Mama is a horror film that isn’t actually all that frightening, but is entirely watchable.

Why is it watchable? Proficiency in the visual department is partly responsible. The outside setting is rich. Old croaky shacks look and sound, well, old and croaky. First time director Andrés Muschietti bolsters the story with enticing monochrome-like flashbacks (or are they visions?) which are eerie and exceedingly well executed. Even the inclusion of a creature which would not be out of place surrounded by group of Dementors aboard the Hogwarts Express can be forgiven, as it moulds in appealingly amongst Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy visualisations. The illustrative prowess displayed throughout certainly adds a degree or two of watchability.

However, more than any optical standard set, the reason Mama deserves the attention of passers-by is Jessica Chastain. In a role that at first glance may seem a world away from her normal portrayals, Chastain’s rock ‘n’ roll chick Annabel actually shares a number of similarities with the actor’s previous characters. Although she is the sturdy anti-mother who squirms at the idea of pregnancy to begin with, Chastain soon becomes maternal and protective over the children, much like her venture into motherhood as Samantha in Take Shelter. Staunchly independent, yet perhaps not entirely equitable to the task, there are instances of Zero Dark Thirty‘s headstrong Maya here too. Forced into a situation out-of-her depth, there’s even a measure of insecurity present, akin to Rachel in The Debt. These qualities merge to create a character who is emotionally sympathetic and empathetic, and this is key in horror — we need to want Annabel to succeed in the face of uncompromising danger. Chastain is tremendous (though, when isn’t she?) and develops an unshaken dynamic with her two young co-stars who also do a stellar job. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is even on hand to provide charm and stability along a potentially rickety road.

Of course the primary aim of any horror film is to scare, and the fact that Mama fails to do so often enough is a significant problem. The issue stems from perseverance with too many over-wrought elements aligned with the scare-fest genre. Not paying attention to odd happenings soon develops into ‘why does nobody believe me?’ until the ‘don’t go in the closet’ saga revs its rusty engine. There is a haunted house; a venture into some frozen, dark woods; heck we’ve even got time for a solitary cabin hidden in the trees (Bruce Campbell, eat your heart out!). When a semblance of fright is unveiled it’s always by way of unnatural stillness and haunting imagery. Sadly though, the BOOS! are back before long and don’t hold the same fear factor they did thirty years ago. A lack of innovation in this highly important aspect does let the film down, particularly when just about everything else is good.

As crazy as it sounds, maybe Mama would’ve been better off as a drama rather than a horror. It gets all the non-scary bits right, but is unable to juggle the workload and deliver what the viewers really want — frights and screams. Mama’s limbs are looking healthy, but her torso could be doing with a diet to rid all excess clichés.

Just don’t tell her that.

Evil Dead II (1987)

★★★★

Director: Sam Raimi

Release Date: March 13th, 1987 (US); June 26th, 1987 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Horror

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie DePaiva

The second instalment of Sam Raimi’s highly regarded Evil Dead franchise, Evil Dead II (or Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn to be precise) takes a slightly different route as far as tone goes to that unearthed in Evil Dead. Here, Raimi chooses to essentially recreate the original and utilise the film as a comical nod to horror in general. With a shortage of laughs never in question and Bruce Campbell at the helm once again, Evil Dead II ticks all of the classic horror boxes in a knowing way. Unfortunately, this shift of focus to comedy shreds a great of the scare-factor away that the original provided so well, meaning the film succeeds as an amusing satire, but fails to deliver as a scary horror. Luckily, a scary horror is not what it is meant to be.

Evil Dead II begins in a similar vein to its predecessor, as Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) travels with his girlfriend Linda to an old cabin in the woods. Soon after they arrive (that is, very soon after) Ash and his girlfriend are attacked by an evil spirit resulting in the death of Linda and Ash becoming partially possessed. Meanwhile, the daughter of the cabin owners, Annie Knowby, is also on her way to the forest retreat alongside her boyfriend and father’s associate Professor Ed Getley. The duo come across southern Jake and his partner Bobby Joe, who join them on their journey to impending madness and gore.

Much of what occurs on-screen during Evil Dead II is designed almost as a parody of horror, and is in place simply to make the audience laugh. From the outset Raimi puts his characters through the everyday (or, more suitably, every-night) rigours of horror: we see a spooky cabin in a dense forest; the demise of a loved one; a suspect bridge (the destruction of which would leave those who have crossed-over in isolation); a dark cellar; Gothic books with ancient text; and all of that makes up the opening half hour. When the focus is centred on these self-acknowledging elements the film works, and works effectively.

Not only is the setting clichéd and the set-pieces part of horror lore, so too are the characters, each of whom boast individual qualities. The heroic protagonist, the charming damsel-in-distress, the goofy idiot and his self-centred partner — they are all present. Evil Dead II‘s obvious satirical drive and the fact that it does not take itself seriously are the two proponents which make the comedy aspect of the film a resounding success. Raimi knows he is pandering to an aware audience, thus, when the additional ancient passages which must be recited to disperse the evil spirits are thrown into the unwelcoming cellar, or when a hapless Bobby Joe scampers out into the demon-infested forest without so much as a moment of rationalisation, a simultaneous chuckle can be heard from both the filmmaker and the audience — communally, we all get it.

Without a doubt, Evil Dead II trumps its precursor as far as comedy goes, but it is a far cry from its predecessor in terms of actual horror. As each scenario becomes increasingly humour-filled and events display the usual scary movie elements, the film quickly loses any lingering tension which would typically be present. Unlike The Evil Dead — which survived and made its name by way of its relentless atmosphere that ranged from discreetly eerie to outright frightening — Evil Dead II struggles to strike up any semblance of an underlying chilling tone. The overarching comedy out-muscles any potential horror during scenes, generating laughter where there would normally be scares. With that being said, the film is not trying to be scary. On the odd occasion that it does reach for a proverbial jump-scare, it does so because those scares have become a staple of horror.

Bruce Campbell’s Ash is as equally at home in amongst the comical nature of Evil Dead II as he was alongside the spookiness of Evil Dead. In fact, his outlandish antics and hilarious facial expressions are even more welcome this time around as they offer more to the film and, in unison with the satire, provide genuine laughs. The duel Ash is involved in early on with his possessed hand delivers outrageous merriment, the resonance of which holds up throughout the film. The supporting cast, on the other hand, do not offer as much comedy — at least not intentionally. Much of their involvement consists of loud screeching and accentuated vowels. Ash’s antics make up the trunk of the film, while the remaining cast are simply the supporting branches. A few snapped twigs have little effect on the strength of a tree, right?

With low production values and ridiculous-looking gore, Evil Dead II sets a comical tone from the get-go as it knowingly places clichéd horror characters in a classic scary setting and through common frightful situations. The shift in focus from terror to comedy negates any usual scares and turns them into echoes of laughter. Often, when a horror film of any ilk is not at all scary, something is not quite right.

However in the case of Evil Dead II, it could not be more right.