I’m still mulling over exactly how I feel about Andrés Muschietti’s Mama. My suspicion is that I will like it more with the passing of time than I do right this minute, though I like it pretty well right now — even while realizing that I am responding as much (or more) to the attempt as the actual results. In the roster of horror films to which Guillermo del Toro has leant his name — and apparent input — this one is nowhere near as good as J.A. Bayona’s nigh-on-to-flawless The Orphanage (2007), nowhere near as ambitious and disturbing as Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2010), but better than Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). (Ironically, the last-named and least successful of the films is the one with the most credited del Toro involvement.) Having made these observations, however, I’ll also say that Mama is a magnificently atmospheric work with strong performances (I actually like Jessica Chastain better here than in most of her more “important” films), an intriguing story and some truly brilliant sequences. All things being equal — and this being January — that’s nothing to sneeze at.
The film is an expansion — a significant expansion — of a three-minute short film Muschietti and his sister Barbara made as a kind of portfolio for Muschietti as a filmmaker. (It obviously worked.) The Muschiettis — along with Brit TV writer Neil Cross — took the short’s situational premise and came up with a story in which to place it. By and large, they did an admirable job of crafting a horror fairy tale. The idea of the story having its roots in the 2008 stock market crash — the stress which has driven a father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Headhunters) insane to the point of committing several murders and dragging his young children off into the woods with an eye toward murder and suicide — works well enough to establish a modern Grimm’s fairy tale aura. Similarly, the girls coming across a strange abandonned cabin has a like tone. (Decking the cabin out in 1950s decor gives it a nicely out-of-time feeling. Plus, having the father do the only decent thing that can be done to a Danish Modern chair — turn it into firewood — pleased me personally.) The drama of all this lies in the fact that he’s unable to put his plans into action when a barely glimpsed something violently — and fatally — stops him. As prologue, this is excellent. The details, on the other hand, don’t entirely add up during the course of the film — especially since it becomes hard to believe five years would pass before anyone discovers the cabin.
The bulk of the film — concerning the man’s brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau with a beard) and Lucas’ girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), taking over the duties of raising these now feral children five years later — works more than it doesn’t. The business of keeping their protector — Mama (played with CGI assistance by Javier Botet, The Last Circus) — barely glimpsed (often less than that) for much of the movie works in its favor. And both the growing dread of this specter and Annabel’s ever-increasing attachment to children she never wanted are well accomplished. Beyond this, there are two extremely creepy fantasy/dream sequences that are among the best horror scenes I’ve encountered in some time. The things that don’t quite come across — or feel a little tired — have the almost certainly coincidental drawback of feeling a bit too much like things (or settings) we recently saw in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and Ole Bornedal’s The Possession.
I’m inclined to overlook the shortcomings, though, because on balance this is a good, sober-minded ghostly thriller with good shudders and a first-rate cast. (The little girls — Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse — impressed me a great deal more than a certain Oscar-nominated child actress ever did.) The use of an actor to give an actual solid quality to Mama (reminiscent of the use of Doug Jones in del Toro’s 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth) is a huge plus. Do we see too much of Mama toward the end of the movie? Perhaps — I haven’t decided about that — but I know I didn’t feel like I was just watching an effect rather than a performance. Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7