Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier | Written by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti | Directed by Andrés Muschietti
In preparation for watching Mama, I caught up with The Orphanage, the logic being that both come under the ‘presented by Guillermo del Toro’ horror label, are directed by Spanish filmmakers and both deal with paedophobia to certain degrees. As it turns out, the exercise was fairly pointless. Those three assets are almost all they share in common. Fortunately, they do share one other thing – both films are very good.
Mama opens with a father bundling his two infant children into a car, fleeing in desperation. After a crash, the family find themselves in the traditional cabin in the woods with a mysterious creature. Years later, the girls are found by their uncle Lucas (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). They are practically feral and whilst eight year old Victoria retains her language skills, the six year old Lilly has next to no language. The authorities allow Lucas to take the girls (fair enough really, given that he spent five years and all his money on finding them) on the condition that psychologist Dr Deryfuss is allowed to continue observing them and that they move into a home of his choosing. Lucas is thrilled but his punk rock, bass-playing, children-averse girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) is less happy. Not being keen on kids soon proves to be the least of Annabel’s worries as the creature that the girls met in the cabin, that they call Mama, has followed them back to civilisation and isn’t happy about sharing custody.
I really liked the film. When I saw Sinister at Frightfest last year, although I enjoyed it, I would be lying if I said I was scared at any point. With Mama, I was frightened on numerous occasions. The problem I had with Sinister was that its ‘shocks’ were so telegraphed, the anticipation killed the scares. In Mama, not only was I genuinely surprised at times, I also felt that even when you knew a shock was coming, what you saw was generally pretty disturbing too. A lot of this is down to the excellent creature design. Mama looks pretty scary and there’s a sense of physicality to her, despite the obvious use of CGI. Director Andrés Muschietti isn’t too shy about revealing her early on, which actually works quite well.
Also scary (and scary-good) are the two child performers, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, especially when in their ‘feral’ state. How Muschietti coaxed the performance from the younger Nélisse I’m not sure but it really is good. The adult actors are also very good. Coster-Waldau doesn’t have an awful lot to do – his character is forcibly removed from the action for much of the film – but is engaging whilst on screen. Jessica Chastain is very strong as the film’s central character and adds to her already fine reputation as an actress. Annabel is a spunky, likeable and convincing character. She also has great taste in t shirts which encouraged me to root for her. It’s a shame she doesn’t save the day by rocking out with some big fat bass lines but I guess you can’t have everything.
The film also looks great and is outstandingly well shot, especially during the prologue as the car winds through a snowy mountain road, in a scene reminiscent of The Shining. The use of sound is also very effective. Speaking to others that have seen the film, there seems to be a consensus that it sags in the middle and the ending is divisive. I didn’t share the view on the sagging middle – I was quite happy to go further down the rabbit hole, though I’d agree that whilst retaining its creepiness, it does lose some narrative drive. I liked the ending too but it won’t satisfy everyone.
Similarly, others may find Dr Dreyfuss’s detective subplot a bit cheesy but again, I rather liked it and thought it was as good a way as any to shoehorn in some exposition. There a couple of niggling lapses of logic, but nothing particularly troubling. Mama then, is a scary and unnerving horror that also manages to have characters you care about and a plot that engages. It may not be for everyone – it strays a little too far from the mainstream western horror template for that, not that it particularly rewrites any rulebooks. If you’re a horror fan that also likes LL Cool J, Mama will knock you out.
Mama is released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 17th.