Presented by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and directed by Andres Muschietti, who wrote the film too, as well as the short on which it is based. A haunting story of motherhood and protective instinct, this is a film I wanted to watch for quite some time, and finally got around to it recently.
The story begins with Jeffrey Desange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a businessman who has suffered a financial catastrophe and has a mental breakdown, killing co-workers and his wife before kidnapping his two daughters. While driving dangerously, he skids off the edge of a road and into a woodland area. Walking with his two kids, he stumbles on an abandoned cabin. While inside he plans to kill his two girls, but as he is about to do so, he is dragged away by a shadowy figure and killed. Five years later we see Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), and they are attempting to find his brother and the two girls, even after so many years have passed. Suddenly the two girls are found, still in the cabin in which we last saw them. Dirty and borderline feral, the two young girls claim that they were raised by “Mama”, who specialists write-off as a coping mechanism that the kids as a way to survive. With custody offered to Lucas and Annabel, under the condition that Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), a man working with the girls and studying their case, can have access to them, they move into a house provided by the institute in which Dreyfuss works. Annabel and Lucas attempt to help the girls, named Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), get back to normal life again. Things aren’t quite so easy though, with the girls interacting with “Mama”, a presence that is initially thought of as imaginary by those in the girls’ care, but when strange happenings occur, it begins to appear that “Mama” isn’t quite so pretend after all.
A haunting tale, Mama has been written off as a sub-par horror film, using well-trodden antics and such in order to phone in a mediocre movie, but I beg to differ, and loudly I might add. For me, Mama is one of the more interesting and well-done haunting/paranormal films in recent memory. Where-as Insidious showed too much and didn’t leave enough for the old imagination to do its job, and the likes of Lovely Molly and Paranormal Activity sequels did the same old stuff to garner a cheap scare once in a while, Mama has a genuinely haunting atmosphere, some excellent performances from a great cast and a spooky and effective ghostie to boot. I was completely drawn into the story, and thought the tense and unnerving feeling it brought to the table was really fantastic.
The kids, Charpentier and Nelisse, did a fabulous job of showing an animalistic side, bringing out the idea of children left to survive in the wild. For their age they were truly great. Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) though, with her variety of emotions at play here, stole the show. Tough and strong in one moment, while terrified and confused in the next, her perseverance as she bonds with the two girls makes for an interesting take on the whole thing, and it’s played out very well.
The scares are effective here, and yeah, sure, there are a few jump scares too. Moments where our black shadowy and floaty ghost thuds into the camera like a super-fast phantom of death, causing pee to dribble down the leg of the portion of the audience that forgot to use the restroom before watching the movie. Aside from that though, it does a marvellous job of presenting an atmosphere of fantasy-style dread, quirky spookiness that is reminiscent of the darkest of fairy-tales. Mama herself is designed very well, but it’s the scenes in which we don’t see the ghost herself, but rather her shadow, as she reaches out a thin hand to the two kids, or plays with them, that send shivers up the spine. A particular scene that I found to be very well done involved a shot where we can see a hallway, and inside the girls’ bedroom in one shot. Annabel is walking up the hallway towards the bedroom where we can see young Lilly playing at tug-of-war with Mama. Creepy indeed.
While I had a lot of fun with the film and was charmed by its story and the performances on offer, I did find the ending of the film to be a little silly, providing a shock moment instead of doing, what I feel, was the right thing to do for the tale to feel properly told. On top of this, the times when the film uses the cheap jump scares are unnecessary, the tense and haunting atmosphere was enough, it didn’t need to jolt people out of their subtle anxious dread. Still, with its fantasy edge and wondrous performances, it is, for me, one of the best modern ghost stories. Underrated doesn’t even cut it. Criminally panned, this is a great film. I’m not sure what people are after in this type of film if this didn’t do it for them.