By Eric Van Uffelen
The PG-13 Spanish-Canadian horror film Mama is a strong feature debut for director Andrés Muschietti: the pacing, tone and performances are all handled exceptionally well, and the film certainly delivers the uneasy anticipation and scares that the genre promises.
In addition, the lead characters are not merely fodder for the monstrous title character; Muschietti co-wrote the script with his sister, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross, and they work against convention in this dark fairy-tale almost immediately.
Mama opens with a disturbing but bloodless sequence of a violent mental breakdown in progress, as a man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is reported to have killed his coworkers. Then we hear the shooting of his estranged wife off camera. The way in which audio is used is highly effective, instilling a sense of dread of the unknown.
The man kidnaps his two young daughters and flees in his car, with the camerawork and winter setting reminiscent of The Shining (although the setting is rural Virginia). There’s an accident, then an abandoned cabin, then a gut-wrenching mistake about to be made. Then Mama appears.
Five years later, the man’s brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) has hired trackers to find his nieces. His girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), is introduced in their apartment, checking a pregnancy test and thanking God for the negative result.
It’s a little crass and easy, but Chastain guides the characterization quickly, working against both the standard expectations for this style of movie and the maternal qualities she exhibited in her 2011 films The Tree of Life and Take Shelter.
A bassist in a rock band, Annabel is committed to her struggling artist boyfriend, but is not at all ready or willing to start a family. The trackers of course then find the cabin, in even further squalor, with the girls in a feral state, alone.
After months of somewhat successful rehabilitation in a psychiatric institute, a court battle looms over the custody of Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse). Lucas and Annabel aren’t suitable parents on paper, in terms of income and stability; Jean (Jane Moffat), the aunt of the girls’ mother, presents a more stable environment, although she has not raised children either.
The only way the kids are permitted to stay with Lucas and Annabel is because the psychiatric institute sets them up in a house, where their psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) is able to study them frequently. Annabel isn’t exactly on board with suddenly taking in two abandoned and emotionally scarred kids.
Victoria adjusts more readily than Lilly, who still eats on the floor and sleeps under the bed. It is not long before the “Mama” that the children frequently invoke makes an appearance, and then the intensity is escalated while the house is taken over.
Mama is played by Javier Botet (with a great deal of assistance from special effects), and his unusual abilities and body language are extremely creepy. The cinematography by Antonio Riestra is often simply gorgeous, including some abstract dream sequences, and there’s an incredible continuous shot that moves from an upstairs bedroom to the living room downstairs, and back to the bedroom upstairs, all while the tension builds and releases and builds again.
The camerawork, partnered with the crucial editing by Michele Conroy, is essential to the many “jump scares” and to the way the character of Mama is utilized. Much as in Jaws, it is often what is unseen that is most effective.
There are some warnings of “Don’t go in there!” and some eye-rolling by the minor characters that are typical of the genre, but what makes Mama distinctive is how Annabel relates to the children. She points out that it’s not her job to look after them, her “parenting” is perfunctory, and when she is forced to spend time with them alone, she asks, “Am I safe?”
Horror films focusing on children and their female guardians tend to play up the protective mother angle, but Mama resists this. (If I had more knowledge of the genre, I might further comment that other maternal “scary” movies, such as The Ring and The Others, are largely bloodless, compared with the gory patriarchal fare that usually dominates the market, but that is for someone else to explore.)
When Annabel eventually does have to truly care for the children, including challenging the meddling of Jean, she’s not portrayed as becoming maternal so much as becoming assertive. The ending is also atypical of Hollywood fare, though it is fitting for the characters and tone. At a brisk 100 minutes, Mama is a smart, compelling entry in the fright realm of horror that plays upon expectations.
Eric Van Uffelen is an analyst in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and reviews films and TV at cinematicgestures.blogspot.com.