Guillermo Del Toro is one of the few contemporary filmmakers that seems to have a good handle on the horror genre; in addition to directing the supremely creepy The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, he’s also produced the legitimately scary The Orphanage for director Juan Antonio Bayona, and now Mama for director Andrés Muschietti, which explores some similar ground.
Mama is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of work, nicely shot (by Antonio Riestra) and scripted (by Neil Cross and the director, from his 2008 short film) and especially well-acted, but it has just one problem: it isn’t very scary.
That’s enough to sink most horror films – and the plotting here, taken from familiar J-horror ghost story ground, isn’t enough to make up for it – but I think Mama gets away with it due to the skill with which some of the thematic ground is covered. We genuinely care for these characters and their plight, and the climax is unexpectedly touching.
The opening is dynamite: during the 2008 financial crisis, a distraught businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones) murders his wife and takes off with their two young daughters in the middle of a snowstorm. After he plunges his car into a forest ravine, he and the girls find themselves at a spooky cabin in the woods…
Five years later: the man’s brother, Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) has been looking for his brother and the girls ever since. A pair of hunters in his employ finally come across the two girls – in that same cabin, feral and cat-like, having raised themselves (sustained, apparently, on a diet of cherries).
The girls are put into the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) before being allowed to live with Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a punk-rock singer who didn’t sign on for the mom thing. Chastain, playing against type, is terrific here; her growing relationship with the two girls, particularly the eldest, Victoria (played by Megan Charpentier), gives the film an unexpected heart.
But this isn’t Nell. The girls claim to have been raised by a woman they refer to as ‘Mama’, who they continue to talk to and play with. Mama just might be more than a figment of their imagination, and may have followed them out of the forest…
And the Mama character is where the film starts to falter: she’s vaguely creepy in concept – a kind of mesh between Pee Wee’s Large Marge and Deadwood’s Jewel – but accomplished wholly through flowing, ghostly, patently unrealistic CGI. At no time are we convinced that there’s anything real to her – that she’s anything other than a Roger Rabbit cartoon creation the actors are ‘interacting’ with.
To boot, we see far too much of her in the second half of the film: the more we see of her, the less scary she gets. To further water down the atmosphere, true to the genre, the film over-explains itself, losing its creepy vibe by revealing its mysteries. We fear what we don’t know, but so few movies seem to understand that. Mama also invokes the usual jump scares, including the cheapest of them all – quick cuts to loud noises, with nothing contextually to back them up – to little effect.
But it’s Chastain – and the development of her character – that saves Mama from being another in a long line of Ring/Grudge ghost stories. The conclusion also saves face by steering away from the explicitly expected. By the end, Mama most reminded me of another recent horror effort – Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – if just a tad more successful.