Last week I wrote a review for new horror flick “Mama” but my editor at Baylis Media is away for a week so there’s going to be a delay in it being published. I thought, therefore, I’d put it up on my blog, fresh off the laserjet:
Opening in Virginia, during a bleak winter and a bleaker financial climate, father-of-two Jeffrey shoots his business partners and his wife, scoops up his incredibly cute little girls and chucks them into his car with the aim of running away. Jittery and distraught, Jeffrey ignores the warnings from 3-year-old Victoria in the back seat that he is driving too fast, and ends up crashing the car into a snowy forest. The threesome happen upon a dishevelled shack in the heart of the woods and Jeffrey decides to end their lives. Before he can do this, something appears from behind him and takes matters into its own hands. Jeffrey is killed. Five years later and the girls are found by a search team employed by their uncle, Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas, who has spent his time obsessively trying to find out what happened to them. Victoria and her sister Lilly are now feral children, having been living off the land. They are immediately whisked into care where they are treated for their condition and slowly coaxed back into a semi-decent state of behaviour. Then they are sent to live with Uncle Lucas and his girlfriend, Annebel (Chastain). It appears, however, that the girls haven’t brought themselves up as much as they have been reared by some sort of external presence whom they refer to as “Mama”. Their shrink thinks that this is a manifestation of their imaginations but Lucas and Annebel feel differently when they become increasingly threatened in their home.
I found the film to be a slight veering off from del Toro’s style. It’s more mainstream than some of his creepiest past endeavours that have been in Spanish and lacking in Hollywood actresses. Nonetheless, Mama is still an incredibly atmospheric and effective movie. The setting is of the same ilk as past Hollywood-horrors such as Orphan and The Unborn, whilst I would describe the style of this film as being along the lines of Japanese-turned-American ghost stories. There was a trend in the early 2000s which saw Hollywood remake chilling oriental tales of spectral little girls who lived in wells and victims of murder who were manifesting themselves in a state of ghostly despair. Films such as The Ring and The Grudge were eerie in a new way – and I would group Mama into this genre of horror.
Mama also uses similar techniques that worked effectively in last year’s The Woman In Black. In that, what unnerved the audience the most was the quick snippets of sound we would hear the ghost make, or the occasional sightings we would witness of her. The same applies in Mama. As she starts to appear here-and-there, interacting with Victoria and Lilly behind Annebel and Lucas’ backs, we catch a quick glimpse of Mama’s dirty, gaunt, bony figure – but rarely see more than this.
It’s a tense film. On several occasions, Annebel nearly comes face-to-face with Mama, (like when she slinks into a closet and Annebel goes to investigate). We witness Mama playing with her “daughters” but don’t actually see her doing it. There is very much a sense that this ghostly being is lurking in the family home and is watching Annebel and Lucas as they attempt to care for her “children”. Not only is Mama watching, she is jealous of Annebel and she is a threat to her.
The girls are played well by young actresses Megan Charpentier (representing the older, wiser Victoria who is wary of Mama) and Isabelle Nélisse (portraying the naïve Lilly who cannot let go of her feral roots). This is probably the most lacklustre performance I have seen Chastain give, in her role of Annebel. She does the job and is a convincing protagonist, but I’ve seen her do better (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help).
There’s a lot of clever screen trickery, we hear a lot of chilling sounds and there are genuinely frightening moments here. However, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of movies, when we reach the finale and Mama becomes less of a subtle force, things get “obviously scary” rather than “subtly scary”. The climax of the film gets a bit Disney and I felt like I was watching a supernatural adaptation of Pocahontas on the set of The Lion King. Don’t let this put you off though – the cinematography is stunning and Mama herself is frightening. The dream/flashback sequences were also incredibly effective with their grainy and disturbing content. The scene in which we discover Mama’s backstory is particularly stand-out.
Mama could have been better, had del Toro stuck more to his usual style (see The Orphanage and Pan’s Labyrinth for examples) but I was generally impressed. I’ve missed films like The Ring and I hope this leads us into a revamp of this type of movie. This is a very good film about a different type of ghost – a primal, grimy, possessive creature that evokes the argument of nature vs. nurture.