Director: Andres Muschietti
Writer(s): Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Producer: Guillermo del Toro
It's been made clear in reviews past that, well, I'm a definite fan of the genre. Horror has been a constant part of my cinematic "life" for as long as I can remember. Universal and Hammer films, in particular, really shaped my ideas as to what I do and don't like. I will greedily soak in all that gore, the terror and the carnage right along side even the most hardcore of fans but there is something to be said about a good ghost story I think.
One of those rare things to find these days with most mainstream genre films is that sense of suspense, the reliance on more practical effects and letting the setting and atmosphere dictate the pacing and ultimately, lead to the biggest of scares. Mama is an interesting sort of beast then. It is, on one hand, structured in most part like one of those films. We are given a rather well-developed back story before we really dive into the story itself. The reveal of the titular spectre is not given too early nor is it lacking when we do finally see the ghoul. There are scenes that are just dripping with a awful dread and clearly something being out of sorts.
It also has a lot of "Gotcha!" moments that are meant to cause the jump-scare as Hollywood tends to go for more often than not. There were so many thing the film got right that when these occurred it almost felt out of place with the framing of the rest of the film. Those good things, thankfully, outweigh the rather trite clichés that we've come to expect from Hollywood horror.
Guillermo del Toro's watchful eye on the project along with newcomer Andres Muschietti's direction proves that even with these formulaic plot devices and sometimes downright lame attempts at scaring the audience there is still one great ghost story underneath it all. There is also a tale of just how powerful the bond between a Mother and daughter can be.
We open with a house in disorder and a news report voice-over. A shooting has occurred at a financial building and the gunman is armed and dangerous. The name is revealed and, quite suddenly, we're seeing that very gunman leading his two young daughters, Victoria and Lily, out to the car. Immediately we can see that things are falling apart for Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. He's downing medication to drown out the radio and the questioning from his children. That Mercedes Benz rockets down an icy highway deep into woods and, without fail, there is a tremendous accident. He, bloodied and reeling, manages to lead his daughters from the wreckage and into the snow-covered forest. It isn't long before a rather lonely and truly foreboding house is in frame. "Helvetia" is the name etched into a wood plank by the door.
The horror continues to unfold as he huddles the girls inside by a fire and now he must bring things to a conclusion. I will readily admit that there is a scene here, within the first five minutes that left me feeling quite uncomfortable but also just sad. A gun is pointed at the back of his oldest daughter Victoria's head. There is, however, something else in the cabin with them.
The story picks up five years later. Daddy dearest is long dead and the girls? There have been no real leads as to their whereabouts. Coster-Waldau, playing a dual role here and serving as the father's twin brother (Jeffrey), has been searching. His savings are nearly spent in search of his nieces. He's exhausted and running out of options. We're introduced here to Annabel (Jessica Chastain) for the first time. She is perched on the rim of the tub, glaring daggers at a pregnancy test in her hand. The "Negative" symbol fades into frame and there is a whispered exclamation of "Thank God..!". If you've been keeping score at home this is, indeed, the same vivacious redhead from films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Help, and The Tree of Life. She is, much like her beau (Lucas) more of the "on the fringe sort". Part bohemian, part gothic punk goddess and, I'll be frank, looking quite good. The pregnancy thing is a bit on-the-nose really but it works. Definitely not the mother type.
Years of efforts do pay off though but what they discover is unexpected. Those girls, Victoria and Lily, are indeed alive but they've been in the woods by themselves for all this time. They are more wild animal than small child at this point. They are poked and prodded and placed in observation rooms for a while under the supervision of Dr. Jeff Dreyfuss (Daniel Karsh). Progress is slow but steady with the eldest, Victoria, as she was just old enough to still retain some semblance of vocabulary. Lily, however, is completely feral. There are numerous instances of shadowed perspective shots showing these little beasts crawling around on all fours, staring back at the audience with glimmering eyes of a jungle cat. The feral kid thing is one that is usually a good thing to bank on. It works here wonderfully.
The good doctor feels that the girls would benefit much more from a stable home environment. Through a quick shift in plotting now the girls are suddenly in the care of that anti-mom, Annabel. An accident sidelines Jeffrey for the remainder of the film thus leading us with Annabel as our protagonist here. One question remains, though. How did they survive out there by themselves?
When we are first given glimpses of "Mama" it is either through the blurry vision of Victoria (who desperately needs glasses to see at all) or in quick cuts of either a spindly hand, flowing hair or billowing garb. It is a slow build to the reveal and when it happens.. holy crap. Mama is a very tall and VERY thin ghoul with a ghastly visage. It is a face that is a mixture of such tormented pain and so much rage. I was pleasantly surprised at the reveal as opposed to Insidious where the build-up to the reveal of the antagonist left the audience wanting something a little scarier than that.
Over the course of the film bonds are formed between the girls and Annabel. Strong ones. They are put to the test in the film's climax. It is yet another callback to Guillermo's repeated narrative of dealing with children making a choice between one of two guardians. Is it the psychotic yet loving spirit who kept them alive in the woods or the somewhat inconsistent but well-meaning Annabel that has grown to love these little monsters?
Conservative? Yeah. It works, though. Man it works and when the credits roll I was genuinely satisfied with the ending.
The fingerprints of del Toro are all over this film whether it be certain locations chosen for the set pieces or just the visual style of the specter itself. There is an element of the gothic and the fantastic here that is quite lovely. One thing to note is that the titular "Mama" character is actually part CG composite and also part actor. The actor in question, Javier Botet, is one of the rising stars of the genre. His slender frame and ability to provide such thoroughly creepy characters means he's got a long career ahead of him. He is in a lot of make-up here and some FX works was done to insert him into shots with this sickly blue pallor about him and flowing hair. Only rarely did the combination of the two not work and, for the most part, the abundance of practical effects was a nice touch.
There are definite problems with the pacing, though, as the last act comes to a crescendo. The plotting to get that point goes from a rather tense study this newly found suburban environment with Annabel trying not to lose her mind as the kids adjust to her as well. Throw their protector, Mama, into the mix and you've got some great scenes. One in particular that leaves you wishing there were far MORE like it involves an open door into the girl's bedroom. It's a static shot that shows Chastain's character down the hallway talking with Victoria while in the bedroom little Lily is being lifted up and tossed around by Mama. It is an interesting scene that showcases a dark sensibility to the humor but also just how much Lily refuses to let go of her ghostly steward.
Those "Boo!" moments definitely detract from a lot of the good that's going on here but there is enough of it to really warrant a look. The cast, all around, is stellar and Chastain's ability to hide all that effervescent warmth underneath a smarmy and selfish hipster rocker characterization was refreshing. She is seriously a phenomenal actress. The real joy of the film can be find, however, in the young sisters. The more measured and studious Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and the much more volatile Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) give performances that are far beyond their years as young actresses. Most child actors are terrible. Let's be honest. These girls, however, tapped into something special and it really helps to life Mama past pitfalls of it's own uneven scripting and sometimes off-putting pacing. The ending is fantastic, though. Seriously. Stick it out. You'll find it worth your while!
We need more ghost stories, Hollywood. We don't always have to have slasher films, remakes of existing properties or torture porn/gore bonanzas. We need more films like this in the genre. The more films we get like Mama or del Toro's other (Somewhat superior) well-produced film The Orphanage, the better horror will be as a whole.