IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME:100 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
At the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, distraught Jeffrey kills his business partners and estranged wife, then crashes his car with his children – 3-year old Victoria and 1-year old Lilly – in it. Surviving the crash, Jeffrey takes the girls into an abandoned cabin, planning to kill his daughters, but a shadowy figure pulls him away, snapping his neck, and tosses the girls a cherry. Five years later, a rescue party, sponsored by Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas, finds the children but they are very wild. They are put in a welfare clinic under the psychiatric care of Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss, who agrees to support Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel’s custody claim against the girls’ maternal great-aunt Jean. Dreyfuss is intrigued by the drawings the girls have made of a mysterious character they call “Mama”, whom they talk to and play with……
I don’t think Guillermo Del Toro has it in him to make a bad film, and you can just about extend this quality to the increasing number of pictures that he is involved with in other ways besides director [okay, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark was something of a misfire, though I enjoyed it more than some and it’s the only example of a major Guillermo-involved disappointment I can think of]. He especially seems to enjoy helping other directors make films in the fantasy and horror genres and giving them a bit of a push whilst adding more than a bit of the Guillermo touch. Mama is a Spanish-Canadian production that is an expansion of director Andres Muschietti’s Spanish-language short film of the same title. It’s not a film that will go down in history as a horror classic, and most fans of the genre will notice bits and pieces borrowed from other films, but it’s a highly enjoyable ride that gets the job done. It’s suspenseful, gripping and most importantly pretty scary, while its central theme of maternity will ensure many of the lasses enjoy the film as much as the lads. The trailer to me promised a kind of supernatural Orphan but what we get instead seems in part to be a version of the Mexican legend la llorona, and in part to be a surprisingly successful melding of Spanish and Japanese horror stylistically, visually and thematically.
The opening scene is superb and not only sets things up perfectly but also shows in a few minutes that Andres Muschietti is totally at home with horror. After Jeffrey crashes his car and takes his two daughters to the cabin to kill them, they enter the cabin and we see a fleeting glimpse of a dark figure running behind them. Already we are on edge, though the next few minutes have considerable sadness as well as intensity as Jeffrey is having a total breakdown and his girls just don’t understand. Something kills Jeffrey as he pulls a gun on Victoria, the dark human-like thing glimpsed slightly in more detail. We cut to what his obviously a few hours later as the two girls sit there, having no idea of what happened. A cherry is thrown to the children, a poetic touch and one that shows this thing means the kids no harm, and then the camera goes into the darkness where, after several seconds enveloped in black we make out Mama in a bit more detail, perhaps too much, but never mind. The title sequence that follows is also good, child’s drawings showing how the girls survive five years out in the wild on their own.
I suppose one immediately thinks of Francois Truffaut’s wild child and/or similar tales when the girls are found, safe but rather feral, but very soon it becomes obvious that they bring something with them, something that is far more than the pretend friend or parent that they seem to talk to. I could have done with a bit more of a build-up here. If Mama had been made in the 70’s or even the 80’s, you would have had a fair bit of time devoted to the ‘settling in’ of the girls in their new home, with the story developing at a much slower pace and perhaps even some ambiguity about whether Mama is actually real or not before the scares proper start. What we get instead is eeriness alternating with jolts almost straight away, but I can’t complain too much, because the film very quickly becomes rather frightening. It plays on primal fears of the Bogeyman who might live in the cupboard, though it’s interesting that this one seems to protect children rather than harm them, while there are sudden appearances by Mama that really do the business as well as a few other jump scares which don’t even always rely on a loud musical sting. I’m warning you about the child in the kitchen!
The tale is structured in and even develops in a fairly conventional manner, with much investigating of past events which may have something to do with the present, though if there is a major flaw it is that we see too much of Mama, especially in the early parts, and when in the final third she is revealed in her full glory, she’s the usual unconvincing CGI thingie that you’ve seen in many Japanese and Japanese-influenced horrors and even does Regan’s spider walk. By this time though, the story has developed a surprisingly emotional strand. There are touching moments throughout involving the children, especially one bit where the more ‘distant’ one of the two finally shows some love, and I have no shame in saying that one aspect of the climax moved me considerably. I wasn’t just watching a good horror movie, I was watching a good movie full stop, where I was emotionally invested in the characters. You may be quite surprised by how things turn out here considering this is a ‘PG-13’ studio-backed horror.
Then again we do have a rather disturbing flashback early on. The deaths are mostly either ‘blink and you miss them’, or not shown at all, but this is really the kind of horror film that doesn’t need gore or graphic violence and it really makes up for this with the staging of some of these scenes, like a great use of Rear Window’s camera flash effect. There has been much bemoaning that Mama is yet another ‘PG-13’ horror and that horrors should be ‘R’ like in the good old days. I don’t object to ‘PG-13’ horror films, some of the best are of that category and you don’t need blood and guts to frighten, but I do think there should be more balance so you get a more equal number of films aiming for both ratings. The ‘R’ rating [of course I’m talking about the American ratings here] seems these days to be mostly associated with so-called ‘torture porn’ stuff like the Saw franchise which a shame.
Certain things in the story are very contrived, such as information which is left around to be seen by someone at just the right time, but to be honest I only noticed such things when the film had finished. It is helped considerably by some strong acting including another fine performance from Jessica Chastain in a role that is harder and certainly requires a greater range of emotions than her role in Zero Dark Thirty, but, like Ethan Hawke’s fantastic turn in Sinister last year, won’t be recognised because it’s in a horror film that unashamedly tells everyone it is a horror film. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse are the two children in the movie, and they really convince except when poor CGI enhances their movements. Muschietti and his cinematographer Antonio Riestra give the film a very elegant feel and look, with almost beautiful contrasting of outside light with indoor gloom, and mostly avoiding that shakycam, quick editing crap. Fernando Velazquez’s score, which I could almost swear was by Christopher Young at times, piles on all the horror film musical cliches but works all the same. The whole film doesn’t really give horror fans anything new, but presents everything in such a good way, and is actually scary, that I came away quite satisfied.