In 2008 a young Argentine filmmaker made a 3-minute short film that caught the eye of one Guillermo Del Toro. The short film was titled Mama and it’s simple premise of ghostly mother chasing after two young girls in a darkened home was so well-received by Del Toro that he decided to produce a feature-length adaptation of the short film. He could’ve easily put himself in the director’s chair for the adaptation, but liking the work done by the short film’s original director the Mexican filmmaker gave the job to the original director, Andres Muschietti, and allowed him the freedom to make Mama the way it was meant to be made.
The feature-length version of the film works off of the screenplay written by the filmmaker Andres Muschietti and his sister Barbara Muschietti (with some help from Neil Cross) and expands on the brief sequence from the short film. We get a backstory as to the origins of the titular character and how she came to be throughout the film. We even get a much more detailed work up of the two young sisters who have become the obsession of the ghostly “Mama” and how they had gotten involved with her.
Mama opens up with a disturbing sequence where a father has murdered his partners in his company and his wife then taking his two young daughters out into the country where his grief at what he’s done leads him in an attempt to complete the cycle of becoming a family annihilator through the killing of his children then his own suicide. It’s only through the intervention of a shadowy figure in the abandoned cabin they’ve come across in the forest that this father’s plan fails. It’s a truly disturbing scene to see a father comforting his 3-year old daughter and at the same time hold a gun to her head. It’s almost a wonder that the audience feels both a sense of relief and horror at seeing “Mama” protect the young girls by killing the father.
We skip five years later as we find out that the father has a twin brother named Lucas (played by Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who has spent the intervening years using whatever money the dead brother had left in an attempt to find the two young girls. Victoria and Lilly do get found by the scouts sent out by Lucas in the very same cabin where their father had taken them earlier in the film, but what the scouts find look more like feral animals than children.
One would think that the film would be about “Mama” wreaking havoc on Lucas to try and get her young girls back, but this film is not about mother versus father but mother versus mother. We’ve already met “Mama” briefly in the start of the film. The other mama in this fight for the girls’ love and soul is Lucas’ rocker girlfriend whose attitude in the beginning doesn’t shout maternal at all. Annabelle (played by Jessica Chastain) doesn’t think it’s her job to have to raise the two girls. It’s her love for Lucas that keeps her from bolting and trying to find a common ground with the two young girls. As the film moves forward Annabelle begins to feel protective of the two young girls and begins to believe that “Mama” is real and that she has followed Victoria and Lilly back from the cabin.
To say that this film is a horror film would be understating things. While it does have some jump scare moments and some creepy and disturbing images the story itself plays out more like a dark fairy tale set in a modern setting. just like another Del Toro produced horror film from the last couple years in The Orphanage, this film uses a fairy tale template to tell the story of the maternal love mothers have for their children. It’s interesting to note that the two mothers vying for Victoria and Lilly are not their biological mother, but surrogates who have come to love and care for the two girls in their own way.
Mama doesn’t break new grounds in the field of horror. It’s liberal use of gothic horror cliches and tropes by the Andres and Barbara Muschietti detracts from some darkly beautiful visuals and imagery that the filmmaker seemed very adept in creating to build that very sense of the fairy tale. What could’ve been a “been there and done that” and “paint-by-the-numbers” ghost story gets elevated by the performances by Jessica Chastain and the two young girls (Megan Charpentier as the elder sister Victoria and Isabelle Nélisse as the younger Lilly). Chastain in particular shines in the role of Annabelle as we believe her growth from reluctant caretaker to loving mother figure to protective mama bear by the time film ends on a very un-Hollywood ending.
Mama will definitely lose some fans of the horror genre who expect gore (which the film doesn’t have a drop of) and tons of scary moments (the film has jump scares but not much). This film will attract audiences looking for something familiar but at the same time with the added visual flair of a young filmmaker who looks to have a future in the genre, if not the industry, as a new creative eye who can work with something unoriginal and give it his own spin.
While the film is not on the same creative and storytelling level as Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage it is much better than Troy Nixey’s remake of the 1973 horror film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The film does continue Guillermo Del Toro’s streak of finding new and upcoming young filmmakers in the horror genre and giving them a chance to break into the industry with him mentoring them through the process. Mama might not be a perfect film but Andres Muschietti’s work as a director shows that he has repaid Del Toro’s faith in him. I, for one, can’t wait to see what this filmmaker has up next.