Tag Archive for Radha Mitchell

Villains, Victims, Venerable Matriarchs: Mamas in Horror

This was originally posted on my Tumblr 10 months ago, Jan 25th, 2013. Mama has been airing on HBO recently, and when it’s playing, I can’t seem to look away even though it continues to irk me. In the absence of my regular recap (next week will be a double-header), have this instead!

"A mother's love is forever." Harrumph.

“A mother’s love is forever.” Harrumph.

Mama, the newest film presented by Guillermo del Toro, took the box office by storm last weekend, probably partly as a result of lead actress Jessica Chastain’s brilliant turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Del Toro’s previous horror-oriented producer credits include The OrphanageSplice, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – interestingly, all centered around variations on the family and the missing or “false” mother. Mama falls into line with the rest, presenting us with two orphaned little girls haunted and fiercely protected by an evil matriarch even as a benevolent (though flawed) mother figure strives to safeguard them.

Perhaps del Toro has a few mommy issues he’d like to work through? If so, he’s not alone; although the horror genre has been both criticized and praised for its ability to subvert societal mores, sometimes it stagnates in one characterization or another. Often enough, horror film flounders around aimlessly, unsure what to do with portrayals of women. Seeing as how, even in 2013, society at large seems to be conflicted about the role of woman and matriarch, this is wholly unsurprising.

Although I enjoyed it, Mama is not without flaws. It punctuates clunky dialogue (“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, doomed to repeat itself” intones an employee at the Clifton Forge, Virginia Hall of Records to a psychiatric doctor – really?) with some genuine, goosebump-inducing scares. We may see a bit too much monster; there is a delicate balance, and though the ghost is well done, the explicitness takes away some of the creepy mystique. Truly spooky imagery (the girls’ animalistic behavior, a sobbing infant moments before its impending death) brings it up to par. Both Annabel (Chastain), a “punk” rocker inspired by Alice Glass, and “Mama,” also known as Mad Edith Brennan, are flawed figures, selfish/selfless women saddled with the daunting task of motherhood.

Mama pitted against mama.

Mama pitted against mama.

In her first scene, Annabel crows happily about a negative pregnancy test – neither she nor her boyfriend Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) wants a baby. But when after five years of searching, Luke’s nieces are located, starved and wild, in the dark center of the George Washington National Forest, Annabel reluctantly agrees to take on the role of stepmother. When one of the girls calls her “Mama,” Annabel’s strained expression gives away her discomfort: “Don’t call me that, I’m not your mother,” she exhales before screwing on a smile. When little Lilly, who’s crawled out the window into the cold Virginia night, shows Annabel with a glance how she came to be outside, Annabel mutters a totally convincing oath: “Seriously? You’ve got to be shitting me.” She’s not the ideal mom, but she’s a helluva lot better than the other choice.

The titular Mama, also known as the ghost of Edith Brennan, is a woman who escaped from “a hospital for sad people” in the late 1800s after stealing her baby. In one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes, Annabel experiences Edith’s fate in a dream. The mad woman breaks free from her straightjacket, takes her child, stabs a nun repeatedly, and runs into the woods. When she finds herself on a cliff with a line of good old Virginia gentlemen closing in on her, she leaps, babe in arms, hundreds of feet into a lake. Anything to “save” the child. When little Victoria and Lilly (along with their late father, a madman in his own right) stumble upon Edith’s ghost, it becomes clear Edith will, as ever, do anything to protect the child. Little does she know, she has a venerable enemy in Annabel. Read more

Movie Review: The Crazies (2/27/10)

Movie Poster: The Crazies

The Crazies

Directed by Breck Eisner
Screenplay by Scott Kosar, Ray Wright

Sheriff David Dutton – Timothy Olyphant
Dr. Judy Dutton – Radha Mitchell
Russell Clank – Joe Anderson
Becca Darling – Danielle Panabaker

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Crazies

Radha Mitchell stars in The Crazies
© 2010 Overture Films, LLC and Participant Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Remake Is No Masterpiece,
but Succeeds with Good Pacing and Shocks Galore

Horror film is enduring a period of what some would call “rejuvenation” and others would dub “total lack of imagination.” Good new horror is hard to find and recent remakes have been totally hit-or-miss. This weekend’s The Crazies is based on a 1973 George Romero film of the same name. This version, directed by Breck Eisner, shares basic plot points and characters, but it outdoes the mediocre-to-awful original by far. The premise is simple: small town America turned upside down by a force that pits neighbor against neighbor in a gruesome battle for their lives. The Crazies isn’t a masterpiece, but its pacing and effects ensure a good time for those in search of an old-school, seventies-style scare flick.

It is spring in idyllic Ogden Marsh, Iowa: baseball season is opening, the fields are ripe for planting, and the sound of tractors fills the air. Young love blossoms amidst the gently rustling grass, and the townsfolk go about their daily lives. The inherent strangeness of rural America is common in horror cinema, partly because it’s familiar to so many Americans and partly because there’s something eerie about such tranquility. Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant) suddenly finds himself in a tough situation when the people of Ogden Marsh begin to go completely out of their minds. The film follows a pretty standard formula: Dutten, his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) manage to survive the initial outbreak and have to fight their way through the hordes of crazies to save themselves. While it bears a lot of resemblance to older horror (obviously), its production values are fantastic and the pacing is ideal. Between atrocious kills there are minor chuckles. Psychologically it works wonders—the moment everyone in the theater breathes a sigh of relief, another shocker hits them.

As it turns out, the government accidentally released a biological weapon into the water supply of Ogden Marsh, causing sentient humans to go totally insane. The movie bears a resemblance to zombie films because the agent causes deterioration and spooky physical changes, but these are not zombies—they’re far scarier than the walking (or running) dead. The crazies just want to kill, kill, kill, but because the infected retain knowledge of weaponry and everyday functions, they’re a scarier threat than zombies, whose only concern is to consume. Hunting is a hefty pastime in Ogden Marsh, and when the virus infiltrates the brains of those with the shotguns, they train their sights on more familiar fodder—a terrifying but obvious twist. The Crazies plays with the idea that a person’s very universe can be turned upside down in a matter of moments, which is, on a base level, what makes horror so fascinating and entertaining.

Good horror film and literature can transform everyday objects, situations, and people into something completely off-the-wall and appalling. To a farmer, tillers, tractors, and pitchforks are simply equipment used to ensure a good crop. To an outsider, these things shriek “instrument of torture.” The Crazies features farm tools used in the latter way, which is effective considering its setting (though not new). The movie also strums on the nerves of claustrophobics and those of us who, as kids, loved the old car washes in which huge rubber tentacles slap against the windows. There are a number of really creative, smart kills that aren’t implausible, but neither are they routine. In particular, a thresher featured early in the movie doesn’t live up to its myriad possibilities, but it’s better for filmmakers to refrain from taking the easy out. It’s difficult for a movie to make a horror fan think, “Whoa!” but The Crazies succeeds at that.

The movie could easily have taken an enthusiastic anti-war or anti-government stance, but chooses to sympathize with the soldiers who appear to exterminate the infected (and anyone who gets in their way). The few military men that survivors encounter make it perfectly clear that they were only trying to help, that they were only following orders. (Though it is worth noting that throughout human history, “I was only following orders” has popped up when the worst atrocities are committed.) There is no real enemy here, and that’s terrifying. Throughout the film, satellite imagery appears, backing away in spurts from the action on the ground. Red letters pop up on the screen: Begin Quarantine Sequence. The audience is privy to the terrifying minutiae of a small town’s destruction, but someone else is watching from above, plotting the best way to save the rest of the world from contamination. It’s a creepy and thoroughly neat way to remind the audience that they’re not the only voyeurs.

The Crazies suffers from a merely adequate script, and a few sentimental scenes that have no place and feel utterly dumb. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell are good in their respective roles, and Joe Anderson’s (Across the Universe) cheekbones and baby blues go a long way. Danielle Panabaker (Sky High) does well in a rather disposable role, adding pretty youthfulness to a cast of largely older actors. The movie’s merit lies in its smart editing, great makeup effects, and classic feel. Character development isn’t at the forefront, but that’s just as well. For a film like this, it’s important just to be effectively creepy and shocking, and at that it succeeds admirably.