Adam Clarke asks: is “I Dismember Mama” based on a book by Dr. Spock?
Imagine a perfect childhood in the suburbs. You and your sister are playing with your dachshund, Handsome, on a crisp winter’s day. The house is big and warm and so is your family.
This is what Lily and Victoria had before their father lost his mind, gunned down their mother and took them to a cabin in the woods with the intentions of adding a few more notches to his murder bedpost. Before the sisters are given glistening new head wounds by incumbent father of the year, Jeff (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the deranged dad is grabbed by a spindly mess of limbs and hair. This is “Mama”, a ghost that takes the girls as her own, attacking anyone who poses a threat.
Five years later, Lily and Victoria (Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier) are found in that cabin. The two girls are feral, emaciated and a little twitchy. Victoria insists that neither she or her younger sister be touched, while Lily prefers to run around on all fours like a blonde Shakma. The two end up in the custody of Jeff’s twin brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau again), and his rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, recently of Zero Dark Thirty) with periodic visits from Dr. Gerald Dreyfus (Daniel Kash).
Dr. Dreyfus, when not preparing to enter the Tony Shalhoub lookalike contest, discovers that Mama is more than just a coping mechanism for Lily and Victoria. She’s a specter whose visits often prove fatal and, like all ghosts who’ve read their hauntings handbook, plans to use both girls to re-live a painful memory. The two girls are soon left in the hands of Annabel, already enjoying her new responsibility as adoptive mom about as much as you like having your contact lens solution replaced with Sriracha; she might not care enough about the kids to tussle with the undead mother who wants them so badly.
Mama (scripted by Neil Cross, Barb Muschietti and Andy Muschietti) is a pleasant surprise in the studio dumping ground month that is January. The film has a fine cast and the script plays out like a darker, twisted take on Curse of the Cat People. It suffers at times from its frantic pacing (the search for the girls is approximately 30 seconds of screen time) and a series of LOUD NOISES. In the age of Paranormal Activity 5: There’s A Spooky Ghost On Facetime, filmmakers overseason their horror shows by loading the soundtrack with the sounds of a dozen hairdryers falling on a million cats. This is the age of (SKRREEEE) sound effects (KLONG) getting in the (BLARMP) way of atmosphere and it’s (BORT) unnecessary.
Atmosphere is something that director Andy Muschetti has a great eye for. His film owes a debt to producer Guillermo del Toro, as films supervised by directors-turned-producers often do. Still, Muschetti’s crafted a fine horror film that, during its quiet moments, echoes the effortless tension generated by William Peter Blatty in the surprisingly compelling Exorcist III. The visuals are consistently striking, especially in the “aged” film look of the flashbacks and dream sequences. The titular Mama, who looks like an almond-headed alien as envisioned by Tim Burton, occasionally looks a bit too silly in well-lit scenes. In spite of this, the creative team of Mama have assembled a memorable little ghost story that’s frequently effective and a breath of fresh air after the supposed horrors brought on by high-profile remakes of Nightmare on Elm St, The Fog and the like.
That leaves us with one issue that needs to be cleared up. I demand to know why this Oingo Boingo song wasn’t used over Mama‘s closing credits! Inbox me, Muschetti, or there will be hell to pay.