While Mama producer Guillermo del Toro may have taken an unforeseen sabbatical from directing, to finally return with this year’s Pacific Rim, he’s consistently proven his worth to chilling little horror movies as a producer. From The Orphanage, through to Splice, Julia’s Eyes and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, del Toro’s name is, if not always a stamp of approval, certainly a good indication that the film will be a visual treat that will have you chewing your nails to nubs. Mama, gestating as a short film before writer-director Andrés Muschietti decided to adapt his own work into feature length, is arguably the closest thing to a del Toro directed movie to come out of his stable since the brilliant Orphanage.
When Jeffrey’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) business crumbles he snaps, takes a gun to his wife and drives his two young daughters deep into the woods. Careering off the road, Jeffrey and the girls stumble upon an old house and set up camp. But before he can ‘mercy’ kill his children, Jeffrey is attacked and killed by an unseen presence. Five years later, Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) hasn’t given up hope of finding his two nieces. His emo rock-chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) meanwhile is celebrating not being pregnant. But when the two girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are found living feral in the woods, Lucas and Annabel take them in. It isn’t long before Lucas takes a mysterious spill down the stairs, leaving him in a coma, and Annabel finds herself the soul guardian of the unruly sprogs. But are they alone? Who is that with the deep voice singing lullabies to the girls and is their imaginary friend Mama more than imaginary?
Opening with a title card scrawled across the screen with the words; Once Upon A Time…Mama wears its Grimm Fairytale style with pride. And well it should. Mama is sumptuous to look at, Muschietti using shadows and light to brilliant effect, making you constantly look for a shifting shadow whilst his drained colour pallet of browns and grays lends itself perfectly to the doom of the piece.
Creepy kids are no strangers to movies – see The Exorcist, The Omen or anything starring Macaulay Culkin as examples – but here, Muschietti brings an air of both disturbing and cute to the screen. Victoria takes on the more logical of the two children, having been older and able to remember her childhood before the woods. Lilly on the other hand is a brilliantly odd little girl, scuttling around on all fours and glaring at people suspiciously from her dark hiding places. What makes these kids all the more disturbing is they’re nothing more than cypher’s for the film’s more spooky creation that is Mama.
And Mama is a haunting apparition. A twisted and ugly incarnation, wild hair never restricted by gravity, any glimpse of her on screen, be it in the shadows or charging at your from behind a cupboard door, is likely to send you hurrying to turn the lights on. The aesthetics of Mama, both the film and character, are such that if Tim Burton was to make an all-out horror film, minus his kooky characters and casting, you’d imagine it would be something as disturbing as this.
The cast are all on solid form. Coster-Waldau, breaking free from his incestuous ways in Game Of Thrones, is asked to do little other than look pensively at maps of the woods but he does it well and you don’t doubt his affection for the children. As the older sibling Victoria, Charpentier gives a warming performance, her desperate pleas to Annabel not to be affectionate towards her are both heartbreaking and haunting all at once. Nélisse meanwhile is captivating as the urchin like Lilly. Able to scream her lungs out before chuckling in a way that only spooky movie kids know how.
Where Mama truly succeeds though is in its character development of Annabel. Not just a scream-queen expected to run around with her chest hanging out, in Chastain’s hands Annabel has a genuine character arc. From a woman who doesn’t want kids to one who ferociously defends the two she is charged with. It’s a transformation to see Chastain, minus her trade-mark red hair, go all Goth and yet display more heart than she did in her Oscar nominated performance in Zero Dark Thirty.
The end, as is often the case with super-natural horror films, slightly disappoints, feeling the need to explain much of the mystery away. But Mama still remains a chilling horror yarn that is reminiscent of those ghost stories you used to tell your friends at slumber parties, minus parental guidance, of course.