Film Review: Come Home to “Mama”

One might call Mama one of the classiest horror films in years, a case of shock and awww . . .

Mama. Directed by Andrés Muschietti. At cinemas around New England.

By Tim Jackson

MAMA — a superb example of the horror movie as an exercise in suspense rather than gore.

With a title like Mama, you are expecting maybe a Yiddish musical. What you get instead is one of the classiest horror films to come along in years. Following the apparent uxoricide of his wife, a father absconds with his two adorable little daughters. He makes a quick get-away in a snow storm across a mountain path and ends up skidding into a ravine. Escaping the vehicle, they find themselves holed up in an ominous, abandoned cabin. Distraught and hopeless, he decides to put an end to his misery and kill the children. Suffice to say, this doesn’t happen.

Cut to five years later. The girls are found and saved by their uncle but from what? How did they survive all these years in a feral state? The littlest one, with her brown, niblet teeth and an unsavory tendency to chew things, is particularly untamed. They appear to have a demon presence with whom they have bonded and which follows them home. It’s Mama.

Both the uncle, named Lucas, and the father are played by the Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who was very good in the 2011 thriller Headhunters. He may be best known for the cable drama Game of Thrones. Jessica Chastain plays his girl friend Annabel—it is the sort of headstrong role that this actress specializes in. Here she is a punk rock musician, an avocation that seems odd and unnecessary because, with the exception of a few tattoos and not wanting to have children, there’s nothing particularly punk about her. Perhaps it is to denote that Annabel is tough and independent. And she needs to be plenty limber: Lucas spends a large chunk of the film hospitalized after a nasty fall down the stairs, so Annabel has to deal with the storms of turmoil.

Despite her awards and success in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain is not being used as a selling point on this film. (“She beat Bin Laden, but can she survive Mama?”) In truth, Chastain doesn’t need the punk musician job description to give us a rough and ready heroine. In this actress’s hands, Annabel comes off as a convincing figure despite the plot’s outrageous situations. In many ways, this performance is more challenging than the one she supplies in Zero Dark Thirty, given the physical and emotional demands of the role from her interaction with both of the children to reacting to computer-generated imagery. She’s supported by two very good child actors. As Lilly, tiny Isabelle Nélisse scampers around like a little spider, leaping onto furniture, sleeping under the bed, combing and chewing her sister’s hair. As older sister Victoria, Megan Charpentier’s long line of credits no doubt helped steer her through a convincing transformation.

Jessica Chastain gives a powerful performance as a defender of children in MAMA.

This film comes from the old-fashioned, “gotcha” school of horror. There is no Grand Guignol bloodletting but a nicely paced selection of jolts and clever horror tropes. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it proffers his classy blend of fantasy, fairytale, and horror. Director Andrés Muschietti turns an elemental notion of nature and nurture into a wonderfully creepy, supernatural story: he has created a rhythm arrangement of moments that first startle and then subside into a tense calm. The film began as a three-minute short Muschietti created with his sister Barbara called Mama. From the tone and premise of that short, and under the guidance of Del Toro, the siblings developed a fully realized story. It’s a clever take on a traditional ghost yarn that’s genuinely frightening.

One wonderful example of his elegant but chilling staging comes when the children first return to the home of their uncle and his girlfriend. The screen is divided visually: there’s a deep hallway on the left of the frame while the doorway to the girl’s bedroom is foregrounded on the right. Annabel moves laterally back and forth in the hallway, folding laundry, listening to the younger daughter playing tug of war with a sheet in the bedroom. Pulling on the sheet, the little girl moves in and out of the shot, which is framed by the doorway. Presumably the older sister, out of sight, is at the other end of the cloth. It seems to be a normal domestic moment.

Suddenly, in the background of the hallway, the older sister walks across the hall. Who or what is at the other end of that sheet? The tugging and the laughter increase. Curious about the noise, Annabel begins to stride up the hall. The door slams and she retreats. The camera doesn’t move—a chill of baffled delight goes through the audience.

Muschietti blends the premises of a ghost story with slightly twisted, often humorous variations on our standard expectations. When the older daughter says to Annabel, “Don’t look in the closet” or “Don’t look under the bed,” she actually takes the child’s advice and refrains. The pleasure of the joke, particularly the reversal of the expected result, is droll and cleverly builds up the tension. Beyond these smart fake-outs, the crafty visual compositions, and good performances, there are a myriad of deja vu moments that allude to other films. Some are fairly esoteric, others more evident; none are overt; all are appropriately placed with wry humor. A disembodied clump of hair crawling across the floor recalls It from The Addams Family. Mama’s hair floats in the air in ways that suggest the haunting vision of Shelly Winter’s hair floating underwater in Night of the Hunter. There are other moments of playful reference—the feral child of Truffaut’s The Wild Child, the little demons of Orphan, the nasty little creatures in The Brood, and an Exorcist style exorcism—but now by way of psychotherapy.

Despite a slightly hokey ending, the film accomplishes what too few horror films pull off these days. Without nudity, butchery, buckets of blood, graphic, CG gore, or an overly orchestrated soundtrack, Mama gets the audience screaming and then laughing at its own gullibility. Even the ending attempts a kind of endearing Del Toro-style mythical logic that depends, in part, on a stunning dream sequence. In the final analysis, the film is about love. Chastain’s character grows to love these children, a passion that may—or may not—save the day. Her other popular film casts Chastain as a huntress, going after Bin Laden. Here we see her other side. Amidst the jolts, murders, and bumps in the night, her motherly instincts come to the rescue. One might call it another case of shock and awww.

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