Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, and Javier Botet
Written by: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements)
I have to say thank goodness for Spanish horror and Guillermo del Toro. Granted, he did not direct this film, he produced it but his influences are all over it. The rest of the world is doing things in horror that is putting us here in America to shame. While we are filming nothing but remakes, reimagining’s, and sequels, world cinema is coming up with fresh concepts, willing to try new things; sometimes they work and sometimes not, but at least they’re trying, and Mama works without a doubt.
Mama is based on a 2008 Spanish short film of the same name which was also written and directed by Andrés Muschietti. The 3 minute short is extremely brief, but creepy as hell, and he brought much of the creepiness from that short film into the feature version. At its heart, Mama is a fable about a mother’s love for her child and the lengths she’s willing to take to protect what’s hers. It’s a dark fairy tale of the type that del Toro has been known and loved for.
We are introduced to a father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau-Game of Thrones) who’s extremely distraught as he has whisked his two small girls away from something terrible he has done. The father is fleeing with his kids during a winter storm, their car slides off the embankment, crashing into the forest. The two girls are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness all alone, or are they?
Cut to five years later as the girl’s uncle Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has never given up hope on finding them alive and has been searching for them these past years. He’s hired trackers to search the forest, and they finally find the girls, who have turned feral, living in an abandoned cabin. The girls, Victoria and Lilly are brought back to live with their uncle and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain-Zero Dark Thirty), but something evil has followed the girls out of the forest, and they call it “Mama”.
It’s hard to take a short film and expand upon it turning it into a feature, most of the time, the vibe and essence of the short gets lost in the expansion. First time feature director Muschietti has done a hell of a job taking his creepy short film and turning it into an atmospheric, dark fairy tale. For those of you who don’t think a PG-13 film can be scary, I’m here to tell you that it can. Muschietti and del Toro have created a stylistic phantom in the titular Mama, which to me was reminiscent of the women in J-horror films with the long, flowing black hair and ability to float and appear anywhere. The wonderful Spanish creature actor Javier Botet ([REC], [REC]2, [REC]3 Genesis) plays the Mama creature in the film. He is able to inexplicably contort and shape his body into positions never thought possible thus exuding a supernatural appearance even before CGI is used to enhance.
As I stated before, del Toro’s influence and sensibilities are apparent throughout the look of the film. Most of his films have a dark, fairy tale quality to them and Mama is no exception. Details such as the moths fluttering about, signaling the arrival of Mama, are small details that tell us del Toro was heavily involved in the look of the film. Mama is not perfect, there are a couple of storylines that seem to go nowhere and could’ve been left out, but that happens in most films.
The acting is top notch throughout the cast. Jessica Chastain is wonderful in her lead as the rocker girlfriend who is thrust into the role of mother figure to two troubled kids. She shows why she is an Oscar nominated actress in portraying a woman who’s willing to change her life to care for kids who aren’t even hers and battle a force from beyond the grave to save them. The young actresses playing Victoria (Megan Charpentier-Resident Evil: Retribution) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are outstanding in their roles as feral children who slowly regain their humanity in the care of Lucas and Annabelle. Little Lilly scampers about on all fours throughout the film like some wild animal, just incredible acting by these two girls.
Mama has a great bittersweet ending that luckily doesn’t take the traditional Hollywood route to tie everything up in pretty bows and ribbons and it makes the film all the better for it. Hats off to the filmmakers for not serving up a traditional ghost story that we’ve seen a hundred times before. Mama is filled with great performances, a great story, and some real chilling moments that will stay with you after you leave the theater. If you were recently saying to yourself, why haven’t there been any good scary movies lately, then you owe it to yourself to go see Mama, highly recommended.
Just for fun, I’ve thrown in the short film Mamá that inspired the feature version; don’t watch it with the lights off!
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