Last weekend was Super Bowl Sunday… or so they tell me. Not a big fan of football myself, I didn't spend the day drinking from beer cans and indulging in fatty snacks while lying around on the couch (at least, I didn't do those things in the name of football). What did I spend my Sunday afternoon doing? I went to see "Mama."
"Mama" is Guillermo del Toro's latest film, a ghost story about a maternal (but mercurial) spirit who takes care of two little girls abandoned in the woods. The film is deeply moody, with a pervasive ambience and a flair for the very theatrical - the spirit of Mama is played by a man with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that allows the actor to move all of his joints in any direction. I'm sure you can imagine how that might make for a rather frightening specter.
Practical effects aside, what I found most interesting about "Mama" was its seeming return to a centuries-old form: the fairytale. From the snow-covered and mysteriously empty cabin in the middle of the woods, to the fact that we know and see the ghost of Mama from the very beginning, the whole film played out like a something from the book of Grimm. There are no surprises in the story, no Shyamalan-esque twists; it's just a good old-fashioned fable from start to finish. And although it falters when it comes to its ending, the movie is largely one of the most satisfying horror films I've seen in quite some time.
Last fall the horror flick "Sinister" enjoyed some success and received excellent reviews following a similar tack: no surprises, a clearly laid out story, and a predictable but satisfying ending. Again, it was one of the more enjoyable horrors I'd seen in a while.
Compare that to the fourth installment in the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, or the umpteenth iteration of the "Saw" movies: series of films full of so many twists and turns that they stop making sense or engaging the audience. It's entertainment that relies on a lack of anything better in the horror stable.
Perhaps it's true that there's nothing new under the sun, and so this return to older structures is merely compulsory. Or maybe everything is cyclical and we're just returning, briefly, to a simpler time. Or maybe the old, original forms are still the best, bound to be brought back in creatively slim times. Whatever the reason, I'm happy to have a little of the old-fashioned back in horror theater. The flashy "new" stuff is starting to feel a bit stale.
As a lad in Jim Thorpe, I'd walk the couple of miles from home on the east side of the Lehigh to the movie theater way up on Broadway on the Irish side of town. The Saturday matinee might be anything from two dozen cartoons to… a horror film.
To paraphrase an old song title, I was "The Coward of Carbon County." Horror films scared me half to death. Worse, they gave me nightmares.
By contrast my little brother Leo wasn't afraid of anything… not our old man's strap nor the most frightening films. This gave him a big advantage over me, even though I was larger and stronger than he. He could enjoy the sight of me with my tousle cap stretched down over my eyes during the scenes where the deformed face of the "Amazing Colossal Man" filled the screen. He could tease me all the way home, after I made him leave the theater before the flick was finished.
I've gotten past all that in my old age. Courtrooms scare me more than monsters now.
On the other hand, I've never gotten on board with Claire and her mother where horror movies are concerned. While I'm able to go to my man-cave and get a good night's sleep after even the most frightening of films, I still hate sitting through them. That's why, when Claire still lived at home with Joanne and me, they contrived a little ritual. On Friday evenings, they made pizzas and curled up on the couch together to watch the latest and greatest of the horror/suspense genre.
I stayed late on campus and got in my longest workout of the week in the gym. By the time I left, the rush hour traffic, always something extra special on a Friday, had flushed out, and when I walked through the door of my castle, the fright-night film was finished. I warmed up whatever left overs the frig had to offer and settled in with a glass of wine to watch part two of the evening's double feature… anything but a horror movie.
Claire is all grown up now with a place of her own down in South Philly. I miss her. But I don't miss the "Moma" movies… not one little bit.