If you’ve been watching movie trailers at all lately, you’ll know that out of all of them, there have been just two syllables that have made up the creepiest phrase in any film advertisement all year.
Guillermo del Toro “presenting” horror films goes right (The Orphanage, Splice) more often than it goes wrong (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) and Mama looked to be a suitably terrifying feature. Its scares might be debatable, but it is a solid, somewhat different film for the genre.
After their father commits a horrific crime, two little girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Ivy (Isabelle Nelisse), are abandoned out in a remote cabin in the woods. Their uncle Lucas (the Kingslayer, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has never stopped searching for them for five years, but the fact that he’s exhausted his savings doing so is grating on his rocker wife Annabel (the inescapable Jessica Chastain).
The Girl with the Octopus Tattoo (for serious).
Eventually, the girls are found living in squalor in the cabin, having regressed into a feral state, their development all but completely stunted. Their survival alone in the woods was impossible, and it soon becomes apparent they only lived through the help of an imaginary guardian named Mama. A guardian that becomes far less imaginary when new parental figures Lucas and Annabel try to move into their lives.
The film could very well be seen as a metaphor for caring for troubled foster children, at least in the early stages. Victoria is shy and withdrawn, but at least remembers language skills over time. Ivy is a different case, having gone into the woods at a much younger age, and coming out just a few steps above a wild animal. She snarls, eats on the ground and walks around on all fours to the point where I couldn’t figure out if in some scenes it was good CGI or just expert level bearwalking from the tot.
Speaking of CGI, throughout the film we start to catch glimpses of Mama, one of the more interesting ghost designs I’ve seen in a film. Guillermo del Toro wouldn’t be anywhere near a movie if it didn’t involve a bizarre looking creature of some kind. Here, she’s impossibly thin and a touch reminiscent of the floating monstrosity of hair from The Grudge. She creeps in and out of the walls and is responsible for nearly all the scares in the film, cheap though they may be.
Mmm delicious hair.
The children are meant to produce some jump moments themselves, but this isn’t a traditional “demon child” horror film. The kids are victims, not demons, and they’re generally 80% cute, 20% creepy.
While the crafted concept is a good one, the execution of the story is rather lackluster. You’re told nearly everything you need to know about Mama’s backstory a third of the way through the film, and the rest is a rather easy game of fill-in-the blanks. I was hoping there’d be more of a mystery to it, and subcharacters exist like the children’s doctor and their great aunt just to give Mama people to creep on.
Jessica Chastain is great here, better than the movie itself, as you might expect from an Oscar nominee two years running. I appreciated the way she played Annabel as initially uncaring but eventually a true protector for the children, as the “devoted, crying mother” role is one that is vastly overused horror films featuring kids.
A Lannister always pays his debts. Even to ghosts.
The movie is largely just okay until the end, where it breaks tradition from most other films in the genre by actually having a conclusory finish. You know how in most movies like this, you’d vanquish the killer/ghost/demon and then they’d flash onscreen right at the last second to let you know there’s room for a sequel? Well, suffice to say that doesn’t happen here, and the movie is way better for it. It goes from horror story to almost a fairy tale, and that’s actually a welcome development.
With a cool concept and great performances from Chastain and the two grimy little girls, Mama is worth a watch for most horror fans. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s not bad either, and that’s more than can be said for most films in the genre these days.
3 out of 5 stars