Do not mess with an overprotective Mama
They say Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but messing with the kids of an over-protective Mama – even if they’re not her kids and she’s a ghost – will put anyone through hell.
Jessica Chastain is sitting on top of the world right now, with the success of Zero Dark Thirty and an Oscar nomination in the past few weeks (I still say she got robbed of a nomination for playing the younger Helen Mirren in The Debt), and she will most likely bring home that Best Actress Oscar … unless she falls prey to the Bad Choice Follow-Up Movie that is blamed for Eddie Murphy’s Supporting Actor loss (for Dreamgirls) after his follow-up film, Norbit. Not that Jessica chose to follow Zero Dark Thirty with what some may consider a trashy horror film. It could have just been an accident of scheduling.
But Mama is no Norbit. With the support of Guillermo del Toro — who was so impressed with director Andrés Muschietti’s Mama short (see below) — the film doesn’t seem to be the bad choice that it could have been. The story is your typical ghost story set-up with some new twists: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Jeffrey, a Wall Street/big bank type in the midst of a financial crisis who decides to murder his partners and his ex-wife and take his two small daughters for a drive to eventually get rid of them and himself as well. But high speed and snow-covered roads don’t mix, and the car flies off the road and down an embankment, with the three miraculously surviving (only Victoria’s glasses get broken in the crash). Stumbling through the woods, they come upon a spooky old cabin (yes, another “cabin in the woods” movie!) to take refuge. Jeffrey tries to take his own life, but chickens out and decides to kill the girls first. Looking out a window, Victoria says she sees a woman but her feet don’t touch the ground, and just as Jeffrey is about to put a bullet in her brain, something comes out of the darkness and snatches him away. Over the course of five years, the two girls are protected by the entity they call Mama until Jeffrey’s twin (!) brother Lucas finally finds them. But bringing them home to get them acclimated back into society comes with a huge price … the jealousy of Mama.
I had high hopes for Mama, especially with del Toro attached as executive producer (although his last producing effort, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, was a pale imitation of the classic TV movie and of his own Pan’s Labyrinth), and the creepy trailer, and some of those hopes were met, especially with the Mama character (artfully hidden throughout much of the film, with just little glimpses of her here and there). She really is pretty disturbing with her hair that seems to be constantly floating in water (there is a reason for that) and her broken, twisted body. I like that Muschietti didn’t feel the need to reveal Mama right from the beginning, letting us just see flashes of her occasionally like Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws. The anticipation of wanting to see Mama is all part of the thrill of the movie.
The other star of the movie, of course, is Chastain, here completely changing her look with tons of eyeliner and a short dark bob (she is a rocker chick, after all) being thrust into the role of surrogate mother to Victoria and Lilly after Uncle Lucas is knocked over a railing and into a coma by the jealous Mama. Chastain really has to carry the film as the skeptic who just thinks the girls need to adjust to civilization, but learns that there are things in the dark that are better left alone. And on top of the spirit in her house, she also has to deal with the buttinski aunt who wants to take the girls to a more “stable” home (and don’t think Mama takes too kindly to that). Chastain plays Annabel strong on the outside, but vulnerable on the inside and I totally bought into her fear as her reality begins to unravel around her. To go from saving the world in Zero Dark Thirty to saving two little girls in a horror movie just shows Chastain’s range and proves she is deserving of that Oscar.
But to call Mama a horror film is a bit unfair, only because of the connotation that brings with it. There are certainly elements of horror in the film, and Muschietti does over-do the clichéd loud music cues to make you jump when the strength of the visuals alone should be enough to creep you out, but thinking back on the film, considering the beauty of the cinematography, and the whole dreamlike (or nightmarish) feel of the story, I’ve decided that Mama is more of a modern day, dark fairy tale … one of those classic Grimm tales where not everyone lives happily ever after. I have to give Muschietti props for not playing it safe and giving us a nice, tidy, sunshine and rainbows ending and this is why I believe the movie is more fairy tale than straight-on horror (and you could argue that many of del Toro’s own films also fall into that category as well).
So do I recommend Mama? I would say yes as long as you go in expecting it to not be pure terror from beginning to end. I think it’s a movie that could stand up to a second viewing to appreciate more of the storytelling than waiting for the scares. My only complaint — and I’ve made this one before — is the over-reliance on the elevated decibel music and sound effects as jump points. If you’ve got a good story and can put some decently creepy visuals on the screen, there’s no need to resort to those tactics that only cheapen the film. I think without the over-wrought in places music, Mama could have been a great, disturbing film that would really keep you up at night.
Check out Muschietti’s short film that inspired del Toro to come on board as executive producer of the feature (it’s also the inspiration for an almost identical scene in the movie):