With Pacific Rim looming in the summer distance, anything with the name Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) attached to it catches one’s attention. Mama is a feature-length expansion of a three-minute short that director Andy Muschietti made with his sister, Barbara. Mama is one of those movies designed to make people yell at the screen. Every horror convention gets pulled out the bag of tricks with plenty of plot hinging on “just cause” moments (as in “why did he do that?” Just cause). Yet despite the premise, all of the bad horror movie tricks, and the endless stream of clichés, Mama manages to wring an effective movie. For that we can probably thank its director, some truly creepy imagery, the occasional clever twist by the screen writers, and an impressive cast.
The story opens with a dad in full family annihilator mode, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones) on a killing spree, taking out his business partners and his estranged wife. He takes his two daughters out in the woods (setting the pattern for “just cause” plot points in this movie, where they promptly get lost. He prepares to kill them in the old spooky cabin he stumbles across when something takes them.
“I do believe there’s a place for human remains and it’s not on a shelf.”
When the girls are found, a custody battle on two fronts ensues. On the physical front, Lucas’ brother Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau) and his selfish punk rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), pitted against his sister, Jean (Jane Moffat). The couple is awarded temporary custody, under the proviso that Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) is allowed to study the girls. To expedite this process, the family is given a creepy old house to live in that they keep for these occasions (because 1) every hospital has a “in case we find feral girls out in the woods” halfway house and 2) let’s face it, there’s not a lot of “run through the house” capability in a one bedroom apartment).
“A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape.”
On the spiritual front, we have the battle of two moms. In Annabel, we have the woman who had no intentions of ever playing mom attempting to bond with the girls and develop maternal instincts. While she is trying to establish trust, communication, and stability, we have ghost mom, Mama (7-foot-tall Spanish actor, Javier Botet) interfering in that relationship. Mama, who wants to be a mom so bad she was ready to kill to do it, presents a most disturbing spectral image. Hunched over, disjointed, a mask of pain and rage, despite her early reveal, her skeletal, spidery movements provide half of the creepy atmosphere of the movie.
The other half is provided by the girls. When they are first discovered, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), can barely speak and aren’t socialized. While Victoria slowly begins to open herself up to the possibility of human contact and love, Lilly is having no part of it. But that’s the beauty of Lilly’s hypnotically horrific performance. She maintains her child-like innocence in the face of the reality of the horror she’s embracing. The whole movie could have just been us watching Lilly the whole time and it would succeed in creeping out the audience.
We’re all looking for a home where we could feel safe, a place of belonging and rest. We spend much of our time trying to stave off the travails of the human soul, the loneliness and sorrow; fill a hole, desire, and thirst only God could satisfy. God has made His home, a place for us to return to, a place He calls us to. The thing is, we have to be able to negotiate the difference between true love, that place to call home, and its counterfeit, the jealous, possessive thing that demands us for its own reasons. Love fights for you, the way a parent fights for their children. And love heals through the very power of presence.
The script could have used one more draft to eliminate the “what was the point of that?” moments, such as the fact that Lucas might as well have stayed in his coma since he served no purpose other than to set up the custody battle and the death by “just cause” that occurs to many characters.
Mama plays in familiar del Toro territory, that intersection of pain and dark fantasy and examining how children deal with trauma. The weakness of it is its reliance on cheap “boo moments” (the entire community needs to have their buildings re-wired and their batteries checked). It simply doesn’t have to. In fact, the boo moments actually distract and break the mood the movie attempts to sustain by taking us out of the believability. That may sound strange when talking about a movie about ghost moms suffering for extreme post partum depression. For any horror movie to work, there has to be a buy in by the audience. With Mama, the buy in comes pretty easily as you have a ghost who can’t let go. The moments designed solely to make you jump out of your seat basically point to the story and says “we got you!” Thus pulling us out of the movie, because we DO feel got. Stripped of those things, you would actually have a stronger movie.