For those of you still with no background on Andrés Muschietti’s supernatural horror film Mama, it can all be traced back to a powerful little short film, well, short scene if we’re being more accurate. Depicting the return of a mother to her two young daughters (we assume), we find out Mamá isn’t all that into hugs and kisses, and she’s actually some kind of apparition our pint-sized protagonists fear. Running only at about two and a half minutes, we get no explanation or backstory for what could have happened to Mamá, but someone rather influential became instantaneously impressed with Muschietti’s effort, jumping on board to produce a feature film based on the tiny Mamá short. That man, as you now know, was visionary director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth/Hellboy), who can now be seen introducing Muschietti’s short film for all to see.
I mean, holy crap, as a director, how would you like to get a call from Guillermo Del Toro saying he loved a two minute scene you threw together and wants to help formulate that tiny segment into your first feature film? But, after watching the short, I was a tad nervous to see how Mama would wrap a story around the whole scenario. Would it really be their mother in ghost form? Would it be an undead zombie type of deal? Where are the little girl’s family/father? So many questions surrounded Victoria and Lily’s chilling escape (?) and how plausible events surrounding that one scene would end up being, but with Del Toro’s participation, my mind was eased almost instantaneously.
With that said, I can absolutely say the collective team of Andrés Muschietti, sister Barbara Muschietti, and writer Neil Cross made me feel downright embarrassed for doubting Mama‘s story even in the slightest. The script was not only able to create straight-laced moments of chair-gripping horror, but also mix in a wonderfully understated yet emotionally jarring feeling of love and family which elevated a typical horror film to heights of thrilling fantasy. Every element – Victoria and Lily becoming feral children, Mama’s deep backstory, the child psychologist prodding at details, a mother’s jealousy – and I mean every element, worked magnificently together. It’s amazing how one little scene about two terrified sisters grew into such a rich paranormal story.
Oh, and don’t worry, Del Toro’s visual prowess absolutely makes an appearance in the film, from subtle details like fluttering moths which grace darker scenes to grander spectacles like Mama’s sickly decayed appearance. Every little detail is accentuated by something more vibrant and eye grabbing, giving more life to scenes rather than just the dull, regenerated dimly-lit locations we’re used to. Cinematically, every shot worked well to angle and frame the tensest of moments perfectly, thinking specifically to our feral children scampering about. They’re never really centered or put in focus when true horror is trying to be achieved, instead kept on the shadowy outskirts of a shot as they crawl around frantically on all fours. I mean, OK, children in horror films are creepy enough for me already, but now incorporate a predator like animal instinct into their DNA and try not to quiver as Lily bolts out a door running like a rabid raccoon, lurking in the darkness with beady little eyes. Yup, I kept all the lights on that night.
Speaking of Lily, both her and her sister Victoria are above and beyond the most memorable characters on screen – as they should be. Child actresses Megan Charpentier (Victoria) and Isabelle Nélisse (Lily) absolutely establish themselves as immensely talented little starlets by literally playing animals for half the film – which are the most impressive and realistic renditions I could have ever imagined.
Victoria eventually starts to gain back her human traits much quicker than Lily, which then gives us two impressive professional feats happening at the same time. Not only do we watch the metamorphosis of Victoria from wilderness child to upstanding little girl, which Charpentier knocks out of the park, but we also have Lily staying in character pretty much the entire film, never being able to shake her more beastly side, but more importantly never breaking character. The two different dynamics contrast nicely with one another while providing an incredibly engrossing story, hearing the scientific and biological explanations as to why Victoria is able to overcome the traumatic experience while Lily still favors sleeping under the bed with fake foliage. Watching both children pull off every aspect of Mama is honestly a thing of beauty, be it a dramatic moment, a horrific attack, a playful tease, or a heartfelt embrace. Kudos Megan and Isabelle, you have me completely speechless.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Chastain yet, the unrecognizable rocker chick who gets involved in Victoria and Lily’s upbringing because she’s dating their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Somewhat physically reminiscent of Rooney Mara’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo character Lisbeth Salander but with a more jovial personality, Chastain is extremely watchable as the lead heroin tormented by a increasingly jealous “undead” mother figure. Battered and beaten, Chastain gives a very touching performance though, as her character Annabel holds strong with every punch. I’d mention Waldau, but his character is very run of the mill, getting more abuse and brutalization than Chastain’s, and spends much less time on screen, but Uncle Luke still provides a fine enough character.
Of course, with such a gangly, deformed, and deteriorated appearance for Mama, none other than Javier Botet was called in to bring realistic life to her. You’ve seen Botet in films like [REC] and The Last Circus (if you haven’t, look up his characters), and once again he brings his uniquely bony body to another horror role, using an unmatched height/weight distribution to put special effects makeup to shame. The dude can dislocate and contort almost every inch of his body – why spend hours in a chair playing with more digital effects then necessary when you can get a real living ghoul in the flesh? Sorry Javier, no offense!
But what gripped me the most was how Mama plays on the undying bond between a mother and her children, and how even the most devastating events can’t break such ironclad feelings. Between Chastain’s character growing to love Victoria and Lily, or Mama’s ever growing attention jealousy, it’s such a beautiful relationship that leads to our more terrifying events. The horror isn’t generated from hate, but instead unprecedented affection.
With the horror in mind, understanding Muschietti’s film walks a thin line between horror and fantasy is important for his finale, delivering an ending found more in foreign horror films. Such an ending doesn’t embrace typical mainstream titles that simply pit good vs. evil and have them duke it out until a bloody finish, but instead recognizes the larger emotions at play and poetically addresses every single character relationship at once.
Mama, Victoria, Lily, Annabel – strong wills and personal decisions end this chillingly haunting fairy tale. As I said, some will find it silly and too Disney-esque, but for some reason I saw the final events as powerful and genre bending, letting characters decide their own fates. I haven’t ruined anything about it, trust me, and I applaud the stance Mama takes on storytelling over some finishing boss battle.
Love, hate, hidden emotions – Mama boasts a tremendous amount of heart for a film that had me covering my eyes. I understand my feelings aren’t mirroring a majority of the horror community, but something about Muschietti’s film sparked unfounded wonderment in me. Be it tremendously talented children, and eerie yet engaging horror atmosphere, true scares, foreign horror influences – it all just came together so beautifully in my opinion. It’s surely something different, but these changes will absolutely hypnotize viewers who share the same mindset as myself.
Mama is an enchantingly dark fairy tale mixed with horror and fantasy, playing off the emotions of a mother's undying love, shown in a powerful light and supplemented by true scares.