On the surface, Mama looks like another horror film that plucks elements of J-Horror and mashes them up with American horror. While those statements ring true, with Guillermo del Toro overseeing the proceedings as executive producer, more is expected. With Mama, more is exactly what we are given as the film directed by newcomer Andres Muschietti is a tense, creepy and emotional romp that delivers in ways you may not expect it to.
Mama is all about love (or lack thereof) and possession (or lack thereof) that some mother’s want more than others. It’s much more than a simple haunting film where the things that go bump in the night crop up occasionally to make you jump out of your seat, although those elements are in there. It’s really an exercise in protecting what’s yours, even though it may not be totally yours to begin with.
The film begins with a set of gorgeously shot angles as Jeffery (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) takes off into the winter snow with his young daughters, Victoria and Lily, after committing a few heinous acts that leaves bodies behind. It’s a fit of madness that sends Jeffery’s car careening off a cliff and the father takes his still bewildered daughters into a cabin as he decides that neither he, nor they, can live with his actions. Unfortunately for Jeffery, an unearthly force puts a stop to his attempt at murdering his children and whisks him away.
Fast forward five years through a beautiful opening credits scene and we find that the unearthly force has taken care of these little girls. In the present day, Jeffery’s twin brother Lucas (also played by Waldau) has been on a never ending search to find the girls since their disappearance. Lucas is far different than the white collar Jeffery as he spends his days in a small apartment painting while his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) yearns to see her rock band go superstar status. Eventually, the kids are located but they are far more primal from living in the woods and need more than TLC to get them back to normal. Unfortunately, being that Lily is the youngest, that primal life is all she knows. She speaks very little English, sleeps under the bed, often walks on all fours and ravages food like a wild animal. Victoria has maintained some of her speech and humanity so she’s less difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, Lucas and Annabel are offered a nice home to keep the girls in as long as their doctor can keep an eye on their progress. It all sounds peachy to everyone, except that little unearthly force that’s taken care of them for the past five years.
This is when “Mama” kicks into a tense tug of war between the natural and the supernatural. It’s a little more than the “things that go bump in the night” premise that we see in other haunting films. Mama has been the caretaker for these girls and she’ll be damned if anyone is going to take them away from her. Annabel, meanwhile, isn’t so much a parent as she is tolerable of the girls because of Lucas’ enthusiasm to bring them home. So, who’s side are you on? That little paradox is what makes Mama work. Yes, there are a number of great shots where you see Mama in the shadows and you’ll clench your teeth during several scenes when you know something is going to jump out at you, but it’s the heart of the movie that keeps it driving along.
Victoria and Lily, played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse, command every scene they are in. Nelisse as the still primal Lily is hard not to like and you easily feel for her considering that the supernatural is the only mother she knows. Charpentier, on the other hand, does great work as the older Victoria. Torn between what’s real and safe verses what is dangerous, Victoria struggles with choosing a side. Her glasses being a gateway to vulnerability as her fractured vision keeps her out of reality. As you can anticipate, by the time Annabel warms up to the kids, Mama wants them back and a struggle for possession cues an intense and heart gripping final moments that you don’t normally expect from a Hollywood fright film.
“Mama” is a tense film with a ton of heart that is surprisingly one of the better horror films you’ll see this year — which is pretty easy to do since most horror movies rely on gore and have very little to offer in the way of emotion. But like “The Others” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” before it, the soul in between the frights make it worth seeing.