By Kayley Erlandson
I reserve the right to watch horror movies once a year on Halloween. It’s not that I’m scared stiff of anything with an ominous soundtrack, I just find myself drawn more towards character development and interesting dialogue over 10 minute scenes of frightened people taking tentative steps through ill-lit hallways to investigate a strange sound. I recently went to two thriller/horror movies currently in theaters: Mama and Dark Skies. I was surprised by both: the former in a good way, the latter in a not-so-good way.
Mama tells the tale of two little girls who spent five years devoid of human contact in a secluded cabin after their parents were murdered. The girls are finally discovered and brought back to their loving uncle and his punk rock girlfriend (Oscar winner Jessica Chastain), but a supernatural entity who cared for the girls while they lived in solitude, “Mama,” has followed them back to civilization. As the girls bond with their new surrogate parents, Mama’s jealousy surfaces and the demonic spirit begins to wreak havoc.
While the setup is slightly contrived and the ending somewhat flat, Mama offers up some genuinely creepy moments. Mama’s tragic backstory is told through legitimately eerie dream sequences and the young actresses play their parts well. As is the case with most thrillers, what lurks offscreen is often more frightening than blatantly gruesome imagery and Mama’s atmosphere drives the movie and allows the audience’s dark imagination to run wile in the first half of the film. There is a particularly unsettling wide angle shot where young Lily plays with a just-offscreen Mama while the others in the house go about their everyday business.
However, the lame Dark Skies was poor attempt at horror. [To discuss the major problem with this movie is to reveal a plot twist, so stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers.] In Dark Skies, a family finds themselves terrorized by an unknown entity who enters their home in the dead of night, eats their food, rearranges their pictures, and talks to their young son in the middle of the night. And, spoiler, it ends up being aliens. Why are they there? What do they want? Why do these highly intelligent beings spend their time dumping all the food on the floor? It is never adequately explained.
I am absolutely perplexed by this movie’s existence. Dark Skies works better as a comedy than a “horror” movie with poor setup, mind-numbingly stupid characters, and the lame explanation of the “supernatural” happenings. It failed to frighten me once. In fact, I found myself laughing through scenes that were supposed to be taken seriously.
While Mama invites the audience to imagine the supernatural at work, Dark Skies aspires to explain everything to the audience. Mama may not be perfect, but its awareness of the power of audience imagination over explanation of the supernatural made Mama more effective as a thriller.