Perhaps it’s due to Disney’s overwhelming use and sterilization, but we tend to forget that fairy tales are chockfull of horror. Just about every one of them begins in tragedy and/or misery. Hansel and Gretel find themselves lost in the woods after their father abandons them to die. Jack gets the magic beans after being conned out of his family’s last valuable possession, an old cow. Cinderella and Snow White are forced to deal with evil, wicked stepparents after their biological parent – most often, the mother – dies in the hero’s youth. Even when things start well, there’s often darkness involved in their telling – some versions of Sleeping Beauty have her spell broken by her giving birth after the Prince raped her, not by love’s first kiss.
I start there because Mama starts there – with tragedy. Investment broker Jeff has just lost millions and gone off the deep end. He shoots and kills two of his partners before fleeing home, killing his wife and making off with his two daughters, 3-year-old Victoria and 1-year-old Lilly. A car crash off a snowy turn leads them into the woods, where they stumble upon an abandoned cabin. It is there that Jeff decides his life and that of his daughters will end – but something stops him. Something the girls take to calling “Mama.”
Five years later and Jeff’s twin brother, Lucas, is nearly spent financially searching for any clue as to his brother’s whereabouts. When the trackers he’s hired stumble upon the cabin and find 8-year-old Victoria and 6-year-old Lilly in a feral, animalistic state, it seems as if the nightmare is over. Desperate to prevent the girls from being taken across the country by the mother’s side of the family, Lucas agrees to a plan by the girl’s psychiatrist. Lucas, the girls and Lucas’ girlfriend, Annabel, will move into a new home, free of charge to Lucas. Here this new family unit can be formed while the psychiatrist continues to work with the girls – helping them while writing for himself a career-making case study. Annabel, a bass player in a punk band, is not interested – she has made her desire to not have children clear to Lucas – but goes along because of him. In the end, the girls, Annabel and Lucas all move in, with “Mama” not far behind. But who or what is “Mama”? And will she stand for someone else stepping into her role?
Mama is the feature debut for Spanish director Andres Muschietti, who is adapting this movie from his own short movie from 2008. If you’re interested, here’s a link to that short film. It’s only about 3 minutes or so and that’s with Guillermo del Toro’s introduction. Working with his sister, Barbara, and Neil Cross, Muschietti fleshes that short, one scene film into a feature. Even though this is his first feature-length movie, Muschietti displays a steady hand. The story moves at a solid pace. The geography of every shot is clear. The opening sequence – telling of the girls’ life with “Mama” – is a nice and unique touch. A few missteps are present though. At times, the score by Fernando Velazquez (The Orphanage, Devil) gets really loud and overwhelms the scene. You also get the “smart person does the dumbest possible thing” moments that are stock for any horror movie, but specially for haunted house movies. (Or as someone in the theater yelled “That’s some dumb white people shit there!”) That said, there’s some sequences – the original short film’s extended scene, the Dr. Dreyfuss flash scene – that indicate Muschietti has greater skills. Here’s hoping he has the chance to flesh them out.
To that end, falling under the wing of Guillermo del Toro could be Muschietti’s blessing. del Toro is carving himself a second career as producer/mentor to a new generation of Spanish and Mexican directors, primarily those in the horror and fantasy genres. His producing credits include Chronicles (Cronicas), The Orphanage, Cosas Insignificantes (Insignificant Things), While She Was Out, Rudo y Cursi, Rage, Splice, Biutiful, Julia’s Eyes, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Crimson Peak, Book of Life and Pinocchio as well as big-studio animated credits for Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of the Guardians and Puss in Boots. This on top of being the producer for his own directed movies like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and the upcoming Pacific Rim.
It’s the connection to del Toro that allows Muschietti the access to such a strong cast and crew. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (TV’s Game of Thrones) lead as Annabel and Lucas/Jeffrey. It’s a credit to Chastain’s talents that you never doubt that she can both have her apprehensions over the girls and playing mother to them while also accepting of Lucas’ decision to move them all into the new home. A lesser actress might have played that duality for histrionics/scene-chewing outbursts. Chastain doesn’t do that. You understand where she’s coming from, but don’t feel beat upside the head with it. And you never juxtapose her performance against her Maya from Zero Dark Thirty. For his part, Coster-Waldau displays great range as both the distraught, homicidal Jeff and his bohemian but loving brother Lucas. Both are individuals and not just one person with different beard options. He’s not in the film a lot – and the movie takes an odd turn when he’s sent on an “errand” – but he’s a good actor who’s clearly more than just Ser Jamie Lannister.
However, the movie hinges on the performances of young Isabelle Nelisse as Lilly and Megan Charpentier as Victoria. It is the girls who act as the connection between “Mama” and the real world. It is their story that is being told. Nelisse’s performance as Lilly is entirely a physical one; as her character is the more feral of the two girls and is silent but for a few lines. She’s all dirty knees and fingers, muddy face and stares into the distance to where “Mama” is watching out for her. Charpentier is tasked with the bulk of the story and she does a solid job as the more mature Victoria. She has to display both a feral side at the start and, as the movie goes on, regain her mental capabilities and express doubts over the relationship the girls have with “Mama”. She’s also the emotional bridge-builder between the girls and Annabel. A lot of the emotional burden is carried by Charpentier and by Chastain. Their relationship works and that helps make the movie.
A quick note on the “Mama” special effect. Obviously, it works a great deal better when it is just quick glimpses and flashes than when it stands in full CGI mode. This is one aspect where the original short movie got it better. The “Mama” in that felt like it occupied the same space as the other characters. In this one, it looks more haunting but it also looks slightly distorted. There’s a moment where “Mama” interacts with a character that ends up being quite disturbing – and far realer than the CGI creation. It may take some people out of the movie, specially at the end, where it’s in full display.
I’m sure you’ve seen the posters and trailers and TV ads and expect a horror movie when you see Mama. Let me dispel that right now. Mama is a fairy tale. In fact, it starts with “Once Upon a Time…”. This differentiation between fairy tale and horror movie is key to the expectations one should have when seeing this movie. There are scares – a few of them really good – but there isn’t the volume of them for me to sufficiently call this an out-and-out horror movie. Not even in the vein of other del Toro productions like The Orphanage or Julia’s Eyes. This is more akin to Pan’s Labyrinth or to Let the Right One In. You can even leave the movie feeling sad for all involved, including “Mama.” At its heart, the movie is about two conflicts: the one between the two surrogate mothers – “Mama” and Annabel – as well as the conflict between the girls’ choices – to stay with the supernatural “Mama” or to choose a normal life with Lucas and Annabel.
The short supply of horror makes me stop short of a full recommendation for Mama. It’s not a bad movie. It’s a traditional, old school-type “horror” movie, which relies on mood and atmosphere to build tension with jump scares to release the tension. The story is well told, even when it takes some stereotypical turns. The performances are solid. It’s a well-built film. BUT unless you’ve never seen these kind of movies before, you are unlikely to be too scared. And the volume of scares is insufficient for me to call it a horror movie. Let me put it this way: if you’re expecting The Shining or Poltergeist, this movie doesn’t quite rise to those heights.
Yet, Mama is a great fairy tale. Fairy tales are all about the breaking of a family unit and how, through hardships and trials, a new one is formed at the end that balances out the bad that came before. That’s what we see in Mama: tragedy, hardships, difficulties and, out of the ashes of one family, a new one is born. The problem here is that the new family is “Mama” and the girls. And “Mama” is extremely jealous and protective of her newfound daughters. But just because she spared Victoria and Lilly from death doesn’t mean that she deserves to own them like pets that she can care for eternally. If you can accept the movie in that regard, you will enjoy Mama.