In Guillermo Del Toro, modern horror films have found a true master. When he’s not making his own darkly comic, fantasy-laced horror he’s producing a host of up-and-coming directors and writers to give them the exposure through use of his name. Some, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are a disappointment, others are startlingly effective, like The Orphanage. Mama, directed by debutante Andres Muschietti is based on his short film and boasts a truly impressive cast of actors, including Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain.
Set amidst the recent economic crash, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a banker, accidentally drives off a cliff along with his two young daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse). Five years later the girls are discovered in an old hut in a nearby forest. Having raised themselves in extreme isolation, the two girls have reverted to an almost feral state and it is only after they’re taken in by Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (Also Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) that the truth of the last five years comes to light. After numerous sessions with a psychiatrist, Victoria reveals that they were raised with the help of someone, or something, called Mama.
Like a game of hide-and-seek, Mama toys with its characters and audience throughout and is at its very best when giving eerie signs of future problems. One scene in particular, where the camera lingers at one end of a hallway creating an almost split-screen effect is superb. We see Lily playing games with, you assume her sister, only to then reveal said sister at the end of the corridor conversing with surrogate mother Annabel. For such a simplistic directional tool, it has a most profound effect and is one of many teases that keep the audience on the edge of their seat.
Mama begins as a fairy tale, and then creates an almost entirely matriarchal narrative after side-lining the solid Coster-Waldou early on and leaving the rough-and-ready anti-mother with the two girls. Their growing relationship is as convincing and tender as any seen in recent horror films and while Chastain struggles to capture the ‘bad girl’ image, her slow transformation into mother-figure is compelling and believable. She even avoids entering the potentially possessed closet at the behest of Victoria, thus becoming the only person in horror film history to actually listen to advice she is given. The two young girls are also excellent, combining playful charm with a ruthless understanding of their Mama and the danger it poses. There’s even a chance for Chastain to show her understanding of horror films by
Where most ghost stories and horror films in general fail, is in the reveal of the ghost/beast/monster. Mama actually manages to create an interesting and creepy creature almost entirely from CG, although as the narrative progresses she becomes more and more visible and some of the edge is lost. There is however one stand-out scene that involves a Mama-POV shot during a trippy dream sequence that is as original and memorable as anything in recent memory.
Ignoring gore and ultra-violence in favour of old-fashioned scares and some actually emotional development between characters, Mama proves to be an exciting and original horror film. The cast, notably Chastain and the girls are superb and while the conclusion relies a little too heavily on CG effects, it still has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end. Mama is the best horror film in the last few years and reinforces Del Toro’s eye for talented young directors.