This not-bad PG-13 horror movie centers on two near-feral girls, found living in the woods, who get taken in to a suburban home. But they've brought someone... or some THING... with them, which might get a little upset when they start bonding with their new Mom. The first half is good, but in the second half a lot starts refusing to fall into place, leading into a sudden, somewhat unsatisfying climax.
I've never loved Guillermo Del Toro as much as everyone else, never thought his movies are as great as everyone else seems to, and do not agree that he, in the words of one recent critic, is "the new Val Lewton." But this movie looked fine enough and then got unexpectedly good reviews, and off to the movies we go, hoping it'll be as good as everyone says. It was good, well... decent, but not quite as good as it's being made out (and fans of sudden loud noises are in for a special treat!). This is directed by Andres Muscheietti who expanded it from a three-minute short film that impressed Del Toro and convinced him to executive produce.
We open with the words "once upon a time," casting what we're about to see as a kind of fairy tale. Then we see a haphazardly parked car and hear a radio describing an economic crash, causing some to commit suicide, and meet a harried dad picking his two daughters up, saying mom isn't feeling well, which should raise viewer questions about where she actually is. Questions that prove to go nowhere. He takes the girls out to a house in the woods, where he is about to enact a murder-suicide when something tall, dark and hairy comes out and snuffs him. We get a fairly good look at this thing, floating hair and all, right up front, which... is an interesting choice, as it deflates a lot of questions about what we're dealing with here. But they must know what they're doing....
Five years later we meet Lucas, brother of the guy from the beginning, who has been using up all of his inheritance on a thus-far fruitless search for the girls. What is the nature of his obsession with getting them? Sorry, not in the purview of this movie. He has a girlfriend in Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, who is a black-haired, tattooed bassist in a punkish band. Then the girls are found, all feral in the abandoned house, and brought in. They are Victoria, older and able to speak, and Lilly, who has spent the majority of her time in the wild. The movie gets a lot of good, creepy visuals from the girls scampering around with a skittering animal movement. Lucas wins custody from evil Aunt Jean, under the agreement that he move to a suburban house and raise them right. Annabel quits her band without a thought and joins them, suddenly stuck with mothering duties. Also on the future victims list, along with Aunt Jean, is Dr. Dreyfuss, unctuous psychologist.
We've been told that the kids have invented an imaginary protector they call Mama. We have a good idea that Mama has come into the house with them, and this leads to a nice shot, which in retrospect turns out to be the best thing in the movie, where we see Lilly playing tug-of-war with a blanket, presumably with Victoria, but then we see Victoria elsewhere, and know that it's Mama on the other end. We also see mantis-like shadows and hear clicking insectoid noises. Lilly disappears from the shot, and just before it cuts away, we see her feet dangling from the ceiling. It's bizarre and creepy enough to raise one's hopes for the rest of the film.
SPOILERS > > >
Soon Annabel sees a glimpse of Mama, and when Lucas goes to investigate, he gets an encounter that pushes him over a railing and down the stairs, mostly on his neck, and boom--he's in the hospital in a coma! That was a surprise, and suddenly Annabel is thrust into the role of sole parent, which in retrospect she takes rather in stride. She is tough and somewhat abrupt with the girls, which works for the character and also because we know she'll be growing into maternal feelings as part of her arc. Maybe one of the reasons this movie is "good" is because she does indeed follow the character arc we expect for her?
More creeps at home. Numerous sudden loud noises and jump scares. But things were going quite well, I was very intrigued, and even had that "this movie is TOO scary" feeling much of the time. Meanwhile, Dr. Dreyfuss is off investigating stuff having to do with mad women who have escaped asylums, and is eventually led to a small box of remains given to him by a creepy old archivist who gives him the lowdown about how bodies left to rot engender wandering ghosts and much paranormal energy. Back at home, Annabel is gradually bonding with Victoria, while in the hospital, Lucas has a visitation by a vision of his brother who shows him a bridge, points, and tells him to save the girls. He wakes, but is still hospital-bound for quite some time. Meanwhile, Aunt Jean shows up for her visitation day, and sees bruises on the girls. She calls in a report of abuse, and is told that she needs to gather evidence. Thus far she has been such a wicked witch that one starts to build up hopes about seeing her dispatched, and the message that she'll need to "gather evidence," i.e. start creeping around in the house, starts making one hope for trashy horror fun. Folks, those hopes will not be fulfilled.
Blah, blah, blah, then Annabel has a dream that explains the backstory of Mama, which is that she was escaped from an 1800s looney bin, stole a baby, was hunted by a posse to the edge of a cliff, and fell off the cliff with the baby. BUT! Just like in the old Road Runner cartoons, the baby got stuck on the one protruding branch on the cliff face, while Mama fell into the water and died. But the baby died, too, as we are left to put together later on. And we are also meant to believe that the populous at the time just let Mama's decaying body lay there in the water for months until it decomposed naturally.
Cut to Dr. Dreyfuss! He makes a recording conspicuously telling us that he'll now pursue the "real" focus of his research (he's writing a book about the case, this is cribbed from Silence of the Lambs), so he goes out to the old house in the woods and gets killed by Mama in a very quick and unsatisfying way. Soon after, Annabel goes to visit his office, and steals his files while no one is looking. Part of this package includes the remains of the dead baby who got snagged on the branch. The girls are warming up to her, and also her clothes are changing from the rock chick styles of the beginning to more Mom styles. Although there is mention that if the girls start to like her, Mama will become jealous. Lucas realizes that the bridge his brother showed him in the vision is by the house, suddenly leaves the hospital, gets a car and drives out to the old abandoned house.
By now you've completely forgotten about evil Aunt Jean, but she suddenly appears outside the house at night, ready to break in and gather evidence, and you're like Now IT'S ON! Inside, Annabel is finally getting some serious sight of, and attack by, Mama, and this goes on for a good fifteen minutes (in movie time) and... why, I guess it took about fifteen minutes for Aunt Jean to walk from her car to the front porch. She comes on, a pile of hair sidles up to her, Mama's nasty face is revealed in it, and that's it. THAT'S IT?!!? That's IT for Aunt Jean? You bet. That's it for Aunt Jean. Thanks so much for coming.
BUT! NOW! The SUDDEN climax. Annabel wakes, post-attack, and the girls are gone! She grabs the nearest dead baby and heads out to the old house. On the road, she just happens to run into... LUCAS! She seems nonplussed to find him out of the hospital. They run into the old house, find Aunt Jean dead but with Mama-face (it's just another quick, cheap shock, all Aunt Jean fun is over), then go out behind the house and... turns out the awesome 50s-styled house is actually right on a huge lake with the famous cliff of Mama's demise RIGHT outside, and you have a moment of "OMG! THAT'S why this house became haunted!" which is followed quickly by "So you mean to tell me that this GORGEOUS house is actually stunning LAKEFRONT PROPERTY and yet no one in the movie is either trying to live there or sell it?" That's the magic of the movies, folks.
Then, gasp! The girls are on the cliff! Mama is going to lead them over to their doom, so they can all be one happy deceased family. Annabel and Lucas rush up there and Annabel gives Mama the dead baby, and there's a second where it looks like she's gonna bite (which would make it the classic ghost story ending, the remains of the dead are reunited and matters are resolved [although technically, since the baby was abducted, they should be reunited with its rightful mother]), but the movie tries to get around that, and Mama flings the bones of the baby away in disgust. I know if would have broken the "seriousness" of the film, but I would have LOVED for Mama to shriek "WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS????" in a booming supernatural voice.
Anyway, soon they're up there having a sort of supernatural custody battle (Kramer vs Kramer II: The Wraith), and Annabel is trying to get the kids, but being put down by Mama's special sleep touch (or something?). Lucas makes a try and seemingly gets Mama's hand penetrating his heart, making you think "Woah, so Annabel's gonna be a single mom." Then they decide to split the difference; Mama gets the little one (who was going to be a socialization problem anyway) and Annabel gets Victoria, and Mama takes her little one off to the beyond, happy now. Then: Lucas wakes up! And he's FINE. You know, getting your heart speared by a ghost hand is just about on par with a hangnail. You might also wonder how Annabel and Lucas are going to explain the loss of Lilly to the police and social workers, but the movie is ending, let's shelve our questions. And soon it's over.
< < < SPOILERS END
As usual, the reason I'm being so tough on this movie is that it came very close to being good. The idea is good, the first half is intriguing and very scary, the direction is good and the performances are fine. But many of the balls tossed into the air by the first half land with dull thuds in the second half, not going anywhere or not being fun when they do (like the unsatisfying deaths of two minor characters), the logistical questions mount, and the climax arrives suddenly and just doesn't have the thematic power it had easily within it's grasp. The movie sets up this big battle of maternal will, then doesn't really see it to fruition. I want to see Annabel fight to get those kids, now that she's grown into her maternal powers, and pay off the good mother/bad mother dynamic we've worked to set up, but it all gets a bit softpedaled and just doesn't attain the thematic grandeur it should have.
There are also things that are developed--like this thing of Victoria's eyeglasses and the extent to which she sees what's happening--that just don't go anywhere. Or things developed that reach only partial fruition, like that mama is "jealous" of Annabel, which doesn't turn out to be exactly the issue, or the lingering question of why Lucas wants these kids so badly in the first place, and why Annabel is so willing to quit her band and change her whole life for something her boyfriend wants. These are the questions that hit you upon watching the movie, and in thinking about it afterward, they just continue to mount.
So, it's too bad, as it had a lot going for it and perhaps just one more script revision, and a bit more attention to bringing all the themes together could have really helped. It's good, it's scary, but unfortunately it just can't tie all that together into something meaningful and resonant by the end.
If you want, it's pretty good, just not as good as it easily could have been.