By Jessica Delfanti | January 18, 2013
Director: Andres Muschietti
Writer: Andres Muschietti
Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet
Guillermo Del Toro has, by now, established an MO for the projects he attaches himself to: children face the unknown through contact with sometimes insidious, sometimes benevolent supernatural beings, generally with dark results. Mama, produced by Del Toro and written and directed by newcomer Andres Muschietti, gets the formula right in a refreshingly beautiful horror film.
In Mama, the children in question are two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) who are abandoned in a snowy cabin. They survive five years in the wilderness through the protection of a magnanimous spirit that they call “Mama.” But when the girls are discovered and rendered into the care of their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his less nurturing girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Mama shows itself to be far less kind-hearted at the prospect of losing the children to other parents.Muschietti’s script is paced wonderfully, with very few of the cheap thrills that make a viewer feel manipulated. Instead, it provides a story that is stirringly unique as it examines the effects of children raised in a feral atmosphere, and the interactions between the children and their new parents provide some of the most intriguing scenes of the film. The narrative is well thought out and, if a bit frayed at its climax, well executed. Admittedly, the motivations for Mama turn out to be a bit cliche as ghost stories go, but encased in a story that is so beautifully delivered, it is easy to forgive small flaws.
The script is better improved by the marvelous cast. Game of Thrones’ Coster-Waldau is a pleasure to watch, with a kindly charisma and a desperate sincerity that makes his connection to the girls seem authentic and endearing. Chastain’s performance is a different experience than her usual Oscar-bait: her Annabelle is a bassist with tattoos, black hair, and a less than nurturing attitude. She plays the character with the perfect measure of comical disinterest and striking vulnerability, making Annabelle a far more engaging heroine than the common fare for horror movies.
One of the greatest feats of the film, however, lies in the unlikely figure of Mama. Many films supply monsters, ghosts, or any variety of horrors that, once shown to the audience to see, lose their scare-factor. Here is a rare example of the contrary: Mama is scarier and scarier the more you see her. While it’s true that closeups on her face leave something to be desired, the shots of the spirit’s disjointed body moving spiderlike toward her victims, and the birdlike physicality she possesses as she looms in the corners of rooms deliver a specificity of image that cannot be trumped by imagination.
All in all, Mama is a package that is exciting, surprising, and creepy enough to follow you into your nightmares. If the formula for Del Toro’s projects has by now become visible and reliable, we can only hope he continues to support projects as ambitious and well put together as Mama, to the benefit of the horror genre–and the detriment of our good nights’ sleep.