For the first time in a long time I went to see a film on the day it opened. I can't actually remember the last time I did this - the closest I've come recently is seeing The Dark Knight Rises about three days after it came out way back in July last year. But two things drew me to this film today; firstly it is from Guillermo Del Toro, who is always worth paying attention to, and secondly it's half term, so my awesome girlfriend/movie partner was around for us to go to an earlier showing.
Before I get on with the review, I just want to say I went into this knowing virtually nothing about the plot, the characters or even the cast, and as such if you finish this review you will inevitably go in knowing more than I did. While everyone likes to experience movies in their own way, if you prefer a near-blank slate approach and want to know if it's any good or not, all I will say is that while it is not the most groundbreaking of horror movies, it retreads many standard horror tropes with a sure footing and is overall a very well made film. It may not scare you (it scared me) as I think the 'scariness' of a film is a fairly subjective experience, but you won't leave the cinema feeling short changed.
Blank slate people, stop reading.
Are they gone? Good. Now I can go into more detail. The story concerns two little girls aged 3 and 1 who end up lost in the woods after their rather tragic father does something a bit stupid. The path to the girls eventual abandonment in a cabin (straight out of the horror genre's Scenic Retreats Catalogue - as I said up top, it doesn't exactly break many a mould) is too good to spoil, but suffice to say it sets up what follows rather nicely, mixing a strange real-world pathos with creepy supernaturalism. Roll titles.
It's worth saying a few words about the credits sequence here, in that implies what happens over the next five years through the children's drawings on the walls - a slow descent into barbarism, as their unseen benefactor presumably keeps them alive. It's the subtle things here that I really liked - the slow reversion to a four-legged existence, the implied fate of various woodland creatures - even if the rest of the film was going to be awful, it has a hell of a credits sequence.
So, five years roll by and it turns out Uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones' Nicholaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays Dad) has never given up looking for his brother's two little girls, despite his girlfriend's (Jessica Chastain) obvious disinterest. He's at the end of his bank account when two guys stumble across the cabin and discover two very alive, very feral girls (this scene is what is technically known as 'creepy as fuck'). After what seems to be a relatively short rehabilitation (there's not really much sense of time passing) the girls, cleaned up and partially re-humanized are released into their Uncle's care, under the watchful eye of a local psychiatrist and much to his girlfriend's initial dismay. But did they bring something back from the cabin with them? And who is the 'Mama' they keep talking to?
The two girls are played very impressively by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelise, are probably the most interesting characters I've seen in a horror film for a while. The elder, Victoria, has a fascinating metaphor for civilization in her glasses - broken when she was young, her receiving a new pair from her well-meaning Uncle can be seen as a first step back into the 'real' world. Lilly, however, was that much younger when she disappeared and is much more stunted emotionally, verbally and socially (insert joke about my similarly named girlfriend here). She is also far more attached to 'Mama' than her older sister. It is a considerable failing of all the characters in this film that they see no difference between the two girls in these terms - they are largely treated the same. It is slightly odd however, that I often felt that the human drama and psychology of the two girls was far more interesting than all the supernatural stuff going on.
Because of course 'Mama' is real, and pissed that her two surrogate children have gone to live with Uncle Lucas and Aunt... the name escapes me. She is a very 'modern' ghost, somewhere between The Woman In Black, the girl from The Ring and an Alien. It is intriguingly suggested at one point that the revenant (awesome word I get to use) is a projection of one or other of the girls, but this idea doesn't go anywhere sadly - she is a real ghost and she is really pissed off. Her motivations are easily guessed by anyone who's seen anything with a ghost in the last 50 or so years but she's very creepy in her half appearances and pulls off the neat trick of still being incredibly sinister even when she's been fully revealed. She is of course responsible for all the excellently executed creepy-jumpy-scary moments (some of them very well telegraphed, as is the norm, but others a lot less so, which is awesome). There's also an excellent motif of moths and cocoons going on with her, which pays off in the otherwise predictable climax. Other than that though, she's fairly standard - not particularly interesting as a figure of tragedy, she never progresses beyond her sinister appearance and BOO factor to turn into something genuinely disturbing. Don't get me wrong, she's terrifying, but anybody who's seen The Woman In Black or even The Orphanage is likely to get deja vu.
Like I said waaay back it's a film that doesn't do anything new. There's a subplot with an aunt who wants custody of the kids that adds precisely nothing, the psychological subplot is much more interesting than the ghost and her back story, and the set design is excellent but again, very similar to what's been done before (I swear, I have seen that exact cabin). The leads are likable, if a tad bland and there are some ideas that are potentially fascinating but ignored in favour of a fairly standard ghost story.
This sounds like I didn't like it, but what it did do right far outweighed these criticisms. The cabin in the woods trope has been around for so long because dark cabins in the middle of the woods are scary. The film is shot very nicely (there's one shot that lasts for about 4 minutes which is very, very clever and very, very creepy), the tone is one of a kind of bleak naturalism, nature shown being a very poor substitute parent. It's an excellent advert for civilization. The script doesn't sparkle, but also doesn't have anything brutally jarring (this can kill an atmospheric film like this one) and the two child actors are very good, especially Isabelle Nelise. Despite it's occasional missed opportunities, it's better than most things out there.
Should you see it? Sure, why not. If you are looking for something truly original, you may be disappointed, as you may well be if you prefer psychological horror over supernatural. But if you like being creeped out, like Guillermo Del Toro's other work (who doesn't?) or want to see something that takes itself seriously and isn't a sequel or a remake, you'll like this.