Horror, 100 Minutes, 2013:
[This is the third selection in my irregular, “My Wife and Kids are Visiting Relatives and I’m Home Watching Movies” film festival.]
Ever since Henry James published “Turn of the Screw” in 1898 authors have continued to dip, often successfully, into the “Ghosts + Kids = The Willies” formula. The introduction of children into a horror story, when done well, introduces a deeper, much more disturbing level of emotional attachment.
In this case an emotionally disturbed father, after murdering his wife, abducts his two young daughters and runs. In a blizzard, he careens off the road and drags his daughters to a dilapidated cabin. There, in desperation, he decides to take the lives of his children, and then himself, but is stopped by a mysterious force. Five years later the girl’s uncle, who has searched continuously, finds the girls, now eight and four years-old, remarkably still alive living feral in the cabin.
The ghost story that proceeds from there is elegantly simple. What truly stands out are the excellently disturbing visual effects. When we’re reintroduced to the girls their CGI doubles scurry like demented animals. The portals Mama uses to enter our world are living, cancerous wounds. The ghostly Mama moves with a painfully distorted, joint-twisting speed that’s truly impressive to see in motion. There’s a brilliant sense of anger-made-physical in the animation that few other films have approached.
The story is tight and meaningful, the performances believable and the effects incredibly effective. The young actresses playing the children are surprisingly perceptive for their ages and carry the movie more than you could ever reasonably expect them to. All of these elements work together to create an exquisite tension that culminates in… a truly, deeply annoying ending.
I won’t spoil it but the ending takes the simple story and fairy-tale metaphors that made enjoying the film so easy up to that point and throws them all away. Instead we get an overly symbolic, completely obtuse, nonsensical conclusion that will likely infuriate you on some level.
I suppose that some will accept the ending more easily that I did. Whatever can be said about it, it’s not worth writing off this otherwise excellent movie over. The care and love put into the film is apparent in every frame. It’s worth seeing for the excellent cinematography and score alone. It may very well end up considered a classic. But oh, oh my, that ending.