Spending Quality Time with “Mama”


Thanks to the magic of the movies, we’ve become accustomed to all manner of spectres, ghouls and monsters. It takes far more to spook an audience today than it did in the golden age of the original Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and  Dracula. Blood is simply corn syrup or CGI, and we, the audience, know that. We understand there is no actual danger on the screen that can harm us, so we’ve required more to scare us. This has cheapened the genre into shocking the audience (which certainly has it’s place) or by using cheap “jump scares” to achieve that coveted cash cow genre tag that has become horror. The PG-13 horror movie has become a novelty. It has morphed into the stepping stone for young children to acquire a taste for the more gruesome offerings in the R rating. This wasn’t always the case, and while the things that scare each individual person are as polarizing as the comedy genre, there are some decent PG-13 movies that manage to elicit that icy tingle that crawls uninvited up your spine. Mama is a movie that remained solidly in it’s PG-13 rating, but still gave me that tinge of adrenaline and discomfort that I absolutely love while watching a movie that’s supposed to scare me.


Moma tells the story of a two sisters who survive a tragedy that leaves both parents dead. The two spend (off screen) five years in the woods, being cared for by an entity known as “Moma”. When they are found the two girls are almost completely feral. They have lived like animals through some very critical years of their development. Their uncle and his girlfriend take the two in to raise them as their own, with consequences far more dire than they anticipated.


Guillermo del Toro has a knack for seeking out spooky projects to fund. The Orphanage is one of my favorites in the genre, and was also produced by del Toro. For this film he hands the reigns to Andrés Muschietti allowing them to expand upon the short film he and his sister, Barbara Muschietti  (who co-wrote the film) created. For his first full length directorial movie he created a sleek, spooky and visually fulfilling little dark fantasy feature. Jessica Chastain plays the punk-rock girlfriend to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Lucas, the uncle to the two girls. Seeing Chastain as a “punk rocker” was kind of a strange role, but as the film progressed she made it work, and her character arch was probably the most compelling in the movie. Isabelle Nélisseplays Victoria, the younger of the two sisters and the one most attached to the entity that raised them. She is fantastically creepy. She’s not like your typical scary-movie-evil-child. She’s a little girl that was raised to have animal-like mannerisms and is devoutly attached to her mother figure…who just so happens to be a ghostly and violent apparition. Speaking of the titular monster; Javier Botet manages to pull off some of the freakiest movements since The Exorcist. He is capable of moving his body so dramatically that the only CG needed for the monster was to make the hair flow through the air. The movie employs a fantastic blend of CG and practical effects.


I alluded to the fact that I considered this movie more of a dark fantasy than a horror. I stick by that judgement. It’s an interesting movie, and it’s entertaining but it also manages to spook me at all the right times. It’s fantastically creepy and beautifully crafted. While not the crowning jewel of the horror genre, Moma manages to lend more credibility to the milder horror genre without compromising on it’s premise and execution.


The Thing (2011) The Thing Anthology Part III


We are in a constant state of ever expanding cinematic universes. Successful standalone films are few and far between these days, once something is found to be profitable, it only makes sense to milk that cash cow dry, critics and fans be hanged! If it makes money, you continue to grow the franchise, it’s the way Hollywood has been working. So, it came as no real surprise that in 2011 we were “treated” to a prequel to a very successful (and my personal favorite) sci-fi horror film from the 80’s. The Thing  replicated the same title as the 1980s iteration; an oddly appropriate move given the nature of the monster in the series. The Thing (2011) is the third installment in this quasi-franchise. It started with The Thing From Another World  in 1951, was remade in 31 years later with The Thing (1982) and a prequel to that film leaves us with what is now somewhat of a period piece of a 1980s scientific expedition gone awry. Maybe in 30 more years we’ll get a proper sequel, but I hope not.

The Thing doesn’t pluck it’s story from thin air, but actually has a very appropriate starting point. In the 1982 version, the scientists stumble upon a destroyed Norwegian camp and one huge spaceship encased in the antarctic ice. The Thing (2011) tells the story of just what happened at that Norwegian camp. While we know the events are probably very similar to the horrors that unfolded in the original film, we didn’t know the exact details until this film came out. Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hired to aid the in the retrieval of an alien spaceship and life form that has been frozen for many millennia. To their horror, the life form is not only alive, but wanting to feed. In standard Thing fashion, it proceeds to eat and replicate the motley crew of scientists in the most horrific and gross ways possible. Paranoia and terror run rampant as the isolated group must attempt to sift the “thing” from the humans before it reaches the general population of the world.

While the plot is virtually indistinguishable from John Carpenter’s classic, they manage to throw in a few original ideas that work really well, and of course there are plenty of jump scenes. I especially liked the way they were able to distinguish the humans from the monster in this film. Without giving it away, it was completely different from the last film, but made complete sense in the scope of the universe. The acting was actually pretty top notch, Joel Edgerton in particular did a pretty great job as the American helicopter pilot, channeling Kurt Russell quite well while still managing to be his own character. It was spooky, it was fun but it wasn’t great. While The Thing (1982) was one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, this iteration lacked the claustrophobia and grit that it took to really leave the audience unsettled. The CGI, in particular couldn’t compare to the practical effects used in the 80s in it’s ability to make me queasy. The atmosphere managed to be more comforting as well. The original film used the environment, the dark and the cramped base to make you feel utterly unsafe the whole movie. The base in this film seemed much larger, the weather tamer and the thing itself was far more tangible than it was when it attacked the American base. Instead of revealing it’s monster form only while transforming or going in for the kill, the monster would hunt in the form of a mass of flesh and bones, crawling around on all fours while it actively searched for other people to kill. What made John Carpenter’s Thing so frightening was how it would try to get away unless it was threatened. It would do anything to get away from prying eyes and transform into human form, then try to trick the others.

This was a fun prequel that took new approaches to the similar storyline presented 30 years prior. With a fresh new cast and take on the cinematic legend, The Thing (2011) managed to give some mild scares and some genuinely suspenseful moments. Where it falls short is in it’s presentation of the monster itself. What was an intangible horror is reduced to something that looks like it hopped out of the latest Men in Black movie; also the fact that it’s atmosphere was not the proper material you need to conduct the type of horror that made The Thing as truly horrific as it was.

Part 1 Part 2



A little late for a scare, but here it is!: The American Scream


Observing an individuals interaction with their hobby is one of the most transparent windows into the type of person they are. It doesn’t particularly matter what type of hobby they have, should you find yourself in a position to witness the process of someone laboring at something they love to do, you’re going to get to know them a little bit better. This could apply to anything from building model airplanes to playing in a city softball league. The principles remain the same. There are countless documentaries that follow enthusiastic hobbyists in their pursuit of perfection towards odd practices, but one that was recently recommended to me was especially interesting, and equally fun. It was an opportunity to watch varying levels of Do-It-Yourselfers in action slaving away at making haunted mazes for trick-or-treaters each year.


The American Scream follows three families as they prepare for Halloween. Each of these families has an annual tradition of setting up incredibly elaborate haunted mazes in their backyard and homes. The first family we see shows an obsessed father that works as a software engineer by day and spends the majority of his spare time designing props and scenes for the upcoming holiday. His family helps him and for the most part enjoys the hobby, but it’s not without it’s toll. Next we see a grown father son duo that are kind hearted, albeit slightly odd. Their approach to scaring is not nearly as professional as the first family, but they eagerly piece together props with instructions they’ve found on the internet. Finally we meet a man that, along with the help of his children, chooses quantity over quality for his maze, building props out of just about anything he can get his hands on. We observe these three families as the days count down to Halloween. We observe them as they interact with their passion, and it’s a blast.


The film itself is fairly generic for a documentary. Switching between interviews and fly-on -the-wall style shots, we get to both observe the creation of the mazes in action and hear the families discuss the emotional implications that these mazes represent. But the real fun comes towards the end of the film when the three mazes open up for one night. The entire neighborhood comes out to try the three mazes, and the creators reap the fruits of their labor by basking in the screams of their community.


The entire “haunting” culture is interesting. What is often viewed as weird on the surface can be linked to more “normal” human traits. The fascination can certainly come off as macabre, but it’s not without it’s charm, and that charm lies solely in the individuals that choose to put their strength and effort into a passion project like this. One thing that was brought up was the communal aspect of Halloween. Thanksgiving and Christmas are more family holidays, whereas Halloween is about the community. Behind the makeup and the blood lies a surprisingly warm tale of human kindness.

The Strangers


 THe strangers

I am a fan of being frightened in movies. I’ve mentioned it before and I probably will every time I review a scary movie that I enjoyed watching. The two most influential scary movies in my life are Jaws and The Thing. Jaws focuses on an unlikely set of circumstances, yet managed to prevent me from drowning at the beach at a young age because I was far too afraid to go in past my ankles for the better part of a year after watching it; to this day I’m convinced my mother let me watch it solely so she could feel more at ease when we visited the ocean. The Thing appeals to my love of the mysterious, the supernatural and the terrifying. Carpenter’s Lovecraftian film of unimaginable horror is smart, bloody and chilling. Both of those movies were received very well by critics. I have become increasingly hard to genuinely scare when it comes to movies. As various horror movies dance their way across my eyes, I find that I enjoy and appreciate the well made ones, but it’s getting harder to get that horror feeling in the pit of my stomach when I watch whose sole intent is to spook me. In 2008, however, a movie came out that did not impress critics. It was cliché, often times submitting itself to the horror tropes common of slasher flicks that had been seen many times before. However, The Strangers was a movie that, for the first time in a long time, reminded me what it felt like to be afraid while watching a movie.

The “home invasion” sub-genre of horror was hardly a new thing when The Strangers rolled in to theaters… which is a big reason why I didn’t see it in theaters. I picked up the DVD, on a whim, used at blockbuster for about four bucks. I went over to a friends house and we dimmed the lights an put it in with no expectations. Slowly, as we’re introduced to the characters and their situation I felt the creeping, crawling feeling of fear find its way in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t just uncomfortable with what was happening on the screen, I was scared. Scared for what would happen to the characters and scared that maybe something like this could potentially happen to me someday! The movie centers around a couple reeling from earlier, emotional (but not horrific) events. What is known at first is that the pair drove from a friends wedding late at night to a romantic, secluded, cabin getaway (of course it’s a cabin). The two are, for all intents and purposes, heartbroken and, at first, we don’t know why. As the night progresses, strange occurrences escalate into full blown nightmare fuel. All methods of communication and escape are cut and these two people that we took the time to become emotionally involved with, are fighting for their very lives in a scary and secluded scenario.

There is an intrinsic value in getting the audience to connect with the characters in any genre, however with horror it is absolutely essential. What I like so much about the introduction to The Strangers is the level of emotion placed on the two main characters. The event that puts them in such emotional turmoil isn’t traumatic, it isn’t that someone dies or anything like that, but it’s deeply personal and intimate, something that is shared from the get-go with the audience. The film style is simplistic but incredibly effective at keeping us hooked. There is no real melodramatic background music, no over acting, simply two people dealing with an emotionally difficult situation. What some might consider a slow start is exactly what made this movie so scary for me. The difficulty in getting the audience to relate to a set of people in a horror film before terrorizing them is astronomical. Why? Because rarely do horror filmmakers take the time to connect us with their piece of art. That intimate tone used to get us to sympathize and relate with the characters? That stays the whole movie, but when the emotion switches from something sadly personal and into something personally horrifying, we’re right on the same page as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) as they make that uncomfortable transition.

The movie is atmospherically superior to most in it’s genre. The tone is claustrophobic and isolating, we know that there should only be TWO people in this cabin, but we know there are more. Sure we see some tried and true cheap scares, but honestly in this instance it added to the whole ordeal, at least for my money. People aren’t always scared by the same things, especially in movies. I will never, ever understand the fear some people exhibit towards the Child’s Play movies. Give this the correct viewing environment for maximum fear and you may be surprised. For me, that environment is alone, in the dark, at night and close to the screen. A horror movie isn’t going to do much unless you yield all of your senses to it, and The Strangers is no exception.