Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier
You may like this if you liked: The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007), The Woman in Black (James Watkins, 2012), Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)
Due to a feeling of extreme helplessness and desperation during the financial crisis a young man (Coster-Waldau) kills his co-workers and wife. He then takes his three and one year old daughters on a drive in treacherously icy conditions. The car careers off the road and he takes them to an abandoned cabin in the woods (oh dear). When he is about to shoot them (presumably followed by himself) he is taken by a supernatural force and killed. Five years later, after constant searching the man’s twin brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) manages to find the two girls, who have now lived alone all this time without human contact and claimed to have been looked after by ‘Mama’. In an attempt to domesticate them again, the girls move in with Lucas and his Goth girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), but whatever was looking after them is not willing to let them go.
So here we have another ‘Guillermo Del Toro presents’ film, as he is apparently the master of moody atmospheric horror films these days. Whether that is deserved or not is a discussion for another time, but here we have another film that he has stumped up his cash for and how much creative input he actually had is unknown to me. Either way it is a good selling point for the marketing people to stamp all over the poster. In the same way that every non ‘Del Toro presents’ horror film that comes out these days is from a producer, writer or director of another couple of similar films (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Purge etc.) like some incestuous community. Anyway, on the Del Toro scale I would say Mama is not on a par with The Orphanage but a vast improvement on Don’t be Afraid of the Dark. Either way, it shares similarities with both perhaps suggesting that maybe it is time he takes a different direction when funding his next non-directorial project as we have kind of seen it all before.
Mama is a low key film that tries to rely on building an atmosphere more than cheap shocks. That said it ticks off the inevitable clichés of the genre as it goes along. For example, despite the couple’s apparent financial problems, they still own a huge and conveniently spacious and creepy house for a vast majority of the film to take place in. Still, in a world of found footage jumps and torture porn dominating the genre, Mama is a welcome reminder that sometimes it is the subtleties and slow building atmosphere that is most effective. We are always more scared of what we cannot see and the fact that the full visual revelation of ‘Mama’ is kept on hold for as long as possible only enhances the effective atmosphere.
The first two thirds build up nicely, never truly edge-on-the-seat engrossing but always engaging. It is director Muschietti’s creation of atmosphere and the excellent performances that makes the slightly ludicrous concept that bit more credible. Chastain and Coster-Waldau provide solid performances, but the stars are the two children (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) whose performances provide a crucial amount of credibility to the proceedings.
Naturally, finding a suitable conclusion that avoids the usual clichés was always going to extremely difficult, especially considering the effective atmosphere that has been built up. A main final third plot development reminiscent of The Woman in Black (grrrr) makes things a little predictable and almost a bit of anti climax, but there is still enough genuine sentiment to keep things interesting. Considering this is his first feature, this may be the start of a promising career in the genre for Muschietti.
Mama is a very watchable and intriguing old fashioned style fairytale that goes for atmosphere over shocks. Muschietti’s effective atmosphere and the great performances help keep things going, but it never grips the viewer as much as it should, and a slightly flat and cheesy climax really lets it down.