Children are not to be trusted. At least, that’s what a lifetime of horror-movie ingestion has taught us. If it’s a child- or child-shaped – don’t go near it, and definitely, absolutely, do not adopt. Ever. But, tired as the demonic child archetype may seem, don’t let the marketing for Guillermo del Toro-produced horror flick MAMA fool you. Andres Muschietti’s debut mainstream feature is a classy, modern, often surprising take on the monster-in-the-house formula. Though it does nothing new where plot content is concerned, it gets points for style and execution. MAMA is a delicious morsel, to be sure, if not particularly substantial, delivering its goods in due course, with a few new ingredients. A new ice cream flavor is still ice cream, but we’ll take a new spin on a classic if it’s tasty.
(Contains less of what we might call “spoilers” and more “things that can be inferred from the trailer and promotional materials”. However, if being kept in the dark is important, proceed with caution.)
Based on the short film of the same name (posted earlier in the month on this site), Mama is the tale of two sisters, Victoria and Lilly. Kidnapped at a tender age by their unhinged Wall Street-working father, whose distraught mood causes their car to crash deep in the woods, the three seek shelter in an abandoned cabin by a lake. They are not alone, of course, and the father soon meets his timely demise at the hands of a protective, and unseen, horror. After years in isolation, the girls are found. Gone savage from their time in the wilderness the disturbing pair, under the watchful eye of a child psychiatrist, are handed over to their uncle (played, like the girls’ father, by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). Little does the young couple suspect that the mysterious figure the girls call “Mama” is, indeed, real…and won’t give up her new daughters.
Given the usual dictates of horror movie canon, it could be inferred that our culture harbors an inherent distrust of young ‘uns. Anything that hasn’t hit puberty is fair play in the creep game, and Mama‘s star players are its two young actresses, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. Child actors can make or break a good ghost story, and the two cast for this spookfest show real talent. As the traumatized siblings, the pair are the real anchor to the movie’s bumps and thumps, delivering FX-aided performances that are as hair-raising as the titular big bad. The girls are in on the ghost’s possessive leanings, having been under her care for much of their young lives. As they re-enter a more normal environment, they react in different ways, testing their loyalty to each other, and to the supernatural creature that’s been acting as substitute parent.
The relief of capable child actors given somewhat complicated roles isn’t the only contemporary surprise here. Chastain’s character, Annabel, is the kohl-smeared, punk-band girlfriend of weary uncle Lucas. Contrary to the frantically instinctive maternal figures common to this brand of tale, Annabel is content with her rocker life, and is in no way ready – or interested – in being a mother. Her gradual, organic warming to her unexpected role as caregiver is a welcome change to the trope, not to mention making her the closest thing Mama has to a protagonist. Her offbeat ‘tude also provides some of the unexpected humor that peppers the film, such as when a snooping sister-in-law checks on the rehabilitating wild girls, and asks how they are. “Outdoorsy,” Annabel quips.
Mama isn’t deeply psychological, more interested in good old-fashioned heebie jeebies than salient points on the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this, we should be grateful. Annabel isn’t the wholesomely “good” mother facing off again the “bad” mother of the title. Nor does she over-sympathize with the creature’s plight, once it is revealed, beyond the bounds of understandable compassion. Instead, she’s a relatable, no-nonsense young woman who, upon first seeing what she thinks is an intruder in the house, grabs a hammer.
Though the Spanish-Canadian co-production was directed by newcomer Andres Muschietti, producer Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over the film. There’s a certain familiarity in the handling of the elements, from the ever-present blue-tinged twilight and dim interiors, to the design of the creature herself. But Muschietti clearly knows his stuff, bringing a keen knack for framing and storytelling to bear on the picture. Knowledgeable as the filmmaker is, he must know that the scare value to any horror picture drops off sharply once the creature is fully revealed. In deference to the problem, Muschietti and his team employ a host of visual devices, and effective pop-in-pop-out scare tactics, to obscure the malignant mother from our view until the bitter end.
One of the most effective shots, at least for this reviewer, comes early on in the proceedings. The ramshackle new family have just moved in to a house reserved for case studies, settling in as best they can given the girls’ strange habits. In a still shot facing the hallway, we see Lilly, the younger of the girls, through the open door of the girls’ room, playing tug-of-war, and giggling. Annabel, carrying a laundry basket, is making her way towards the camera, around the corner from the room. As she nears the turn, Victoria stops her…having walked in from the other side of the frame. There’s no music, no camera movement, but the moment when the audience realizes Lilly is playing not with her sister, but with an unseen, unknown figure is chilling. Understated, but startling, the image lingered as a promising portent of things to come.
There’s a few typical missteps thrown into the mix, from an establishing shot of the house using a fisheye lens that would be more at home in television, to a dénouement drawn out well beyond where it should have been cut. These are small mistakes spotted in a strong, expertly crafted story. All-in-all, Mama is great – if standard – fare with some modern surprises, and some truly terrifying frights. It gives good nightmares, as advertised, and that’s more than enough.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be busy bolting my windows.
Zoe Chevat holds an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. She lives and works in Los Angeles as both a writer and animator, and, as a relocated East Coaster, still finds the first part of this sentence to be unnerving.