“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself, time and time again…’
Guillermo del Toro is a name that any wisened cinema-goer or film buff would get excited over, after all this is the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy: The Golden Army and The Devil’s Backbone, this is man known for giving life to terrifying creatures and twisted fantasies, seeing his name attached to Mama I already had certain expectations. Drawn to a short Spanish-language film of the same name, del Toro backed Muschietti in turning his short film into a feature.
Let’s get something out of the way first, if you’re looking for cheap scares and shock frights then yes this movie will have a few of those but this isn’t a horror movie as many would come to expect, it is watches more like the images you’d conjure up in your own head when you are listening to a gripping ghost story, so if you don’t fancy engrossing yourself in a tale then this probably won’t be for you… as according to the people sat around me in the cinema, Mama was ‘sh*t’, but I don’t want to turn this into a debate on horror, again (Has the Horror genre lost it’s fright?).
Mama is the story of two little girls, Victoria aged three and Lily aged one, who are abandoned by their unhinged father in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Their new home is dilapidated, barely holding out against the elements but they are not alone, something else lives there too, choosing to protect and feed the girls. Five years later and Lucas (Coster-Waldau) still clings to hope that his two young nieces might still be alive somewhere and has sunk every last penny into finding them while his girlfriend Annabel offers what support she can. The young couples world, of rock bands and selling sketches is turned upside down when the girls are found alive, feral creatures afraid of human contact, they are placed in the protective custody of their Uncle who believes now the girls have a chance of a normal life.
While in care, their doctor, Dreyfuss learns that the girls created a guardian of their own, a figure that protected and cared for them the past five years, a figure they both call Mama, their imaginary mother.
At first relations are strained, as Victoria’s distrust doesn’t ease and Lily having little human contact or education struggles to communicate both choose to spend their time with Mama, the girls begin to warm to their new surroundings and then things change and Annabel and Lucas realise that maybe Mama isn’t a made up mother, but something that has followed the young girls to their new home and is unwilling to let them go.
Mama is not for people who watch movies through their fingers as that doesn’t save you from the real scares, the movie is unnerving, as Muschietti seems to delight in letting us scare ourselves more than doing all the frightening. More often than not you’re left anxiously waiting for something to happen but nothing does, an innocent scene that follows Annabel doing laundry and Lily playing in her room leaves you reeling when we discover that her older sister is not in the room with her and as the audience collectively gasps you will find yourself swept up in a sense of mass panic. The film works on making you feel uncomfortable and it does so rather well across multiple levels, ignoring the fact that this is horror movie, it’s the story of two innocent children left to die only to turn savage and reduced to basic human instincts and the deconstruction of the family model, shattering illusions and notions of what makes a good parent, Mama could have worked just as well without the ghost.
Chastain and Coster-Waldau are believable in their parts as struggling new parents, in particular Chastain’s portrayal of the unwilling mother figure and growing affection for her surrogate daughters is one that feels natural, with her pulling closer to Victoria while still struggling to close the distance between herself and little Lily. The stars of the movie are the sisters played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse who despite their age outshine their co-stars, tugging on our heart strings, disturbing and putting us on edge without falling into that cliché of ‘creepy little girl’ syndrome, they aren’t monsters or supernatural oddities but the embodiment of humanity lost and replaced by basic survival instincts.
I can’t forget to mention ‘Mama’ and would personally like to thank the creators and effect coordinators for absolutely scaring the living daylights out of me, she is terrifying, beautiful, ugly and sad, she is the monster that you fear and feel so much sorrow for.
The movie isn’t perfect and you’ll find that there is some issues with continuity and some fairly annoying plot holes and fall offs. The character of Dr. Dreyfuss doesn’t feel very necessary, the government employee working in the hall of records is a little too much to bear as is the bitter Aunt who lost the custody battle for the girls, with these characters acting more as plot devices than anything else. You might also find yourself, well I did anyway, why anyone with a bit of sense let alone a fully qualified psychologist, would venture into the woods let at night to investigate and just how Lucas manages to stumble out in front of his girlfriend on a quiet road in the thick of huge forest expanse, at best I’m being overly critical, at worst this is just very lazy script work.
All of that aside, Mama is an amazing film! I can forgive all of the above because even if they are obvious they barely make a dint in the film and don’t even manage to detract from the atmosphere.
At it’s heart Mama is a ghost story, the kind that doesn’t need cheap tricks to work but instead chips away at your security, turning what you know against you, lurking at the back of your mind and crawling under skin. Fan of real horror? Then go see Mama!
Some redundant characters
Few plot holes