Dir. Andrés Muschietti
Imagine, if you will, that Hansel and Gretel were too little girls who were saved by the wicked witch before their father – utterly unhinged because of the stresses and strains of the recession – could kill them. Surviving for five years in the witch’s house deep in the dark woods, they are eventually discovered by their uncle and his rock-chick girlfriend, who bring them back to civilisation and attempt to lovingly reintegrate them back into society. Imagine then, that the witch, who had reared them as her own feral offspring, was having none of this, and followed them into suburbia to claim them back. This is the central premise of Andrés Muschietti’s darkly beautiful fairytale horror, Mama.
The matriarch has always been a central figure in fairytales. Sometimes she is a protective, loving figure, willing to go to any lengths to protect her young. Usually though, in the shape of a step-mother, she is cruel, wicked and intends to harm the helpless innocents in her charge. When a mother turns against her young, it’s rich ground to explore in horror. The central antagonist of Mama - the feature-length expansion of a three-minute short – is a monstrously maternal figure, simultaneously terrifying and nurturing the little girls she rescues from their suicidal father before he can kill them. While it is guilty of regurgitating a plethora of horror clichés, Mama’s heart-rending emotional core, strong cast, fairytale underpinnings and spooky atmosphere ensure it is elevated above and beyond its peers.
The guiding hand of Guillermo del Toro is obvious, and certain themes and motifs that populate his own oeuvre are present here, too. Mama echoes the likes of The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, with its young protagonists encountering threats not only from the real world, but from the otherworldly. A good ghost story should have tragedy, sadness and grief at its core and with its exploration of ideas surrounding maternal instincts and unconditional love, Mama slowly unveils itself as a moving lament on the loss of childhood and corrupted innocence. That said, it still manages to chill the blood with its haunting imagery and insistent jump-scares.
Ambiguity is discarded early on, as Muschietti reveals the presence of the spectral creature, though he carefully relegates her to the shadows. To begin with anyway… Long, slow, lingering shots of darkened hallways, brief glimpses of the hunched and scurrying children, and just-out-of-focus glances of a dark, hovering form establish the moody suspense before the maternal monster is revealed in all her grotesque glory. Her spindly look - all flowing hair, elongated fingers and disjointed limbs created by a mainly subtle amalgamation of practical effects and CGI – evokes memories of various Japanese horror titles; as do some of the alarming dream sequences. The sounds 'Mama' and the girls make when conversing are also incredibly creepy and add to the already eerie atmosphere.
As the young couple who find themselves responsible for the girls, Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau generate audience sympathy from the get-go; as Annabel and Lucas, they are likeable, relatable and their performances really help flesh out their characters. The two girls are pitiful little creatures, true innocents who have been thrust into a nightmarish situation by those who should be caring for them. Ably matching their adult co-stars, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse deliver truthful performances, perfectly capturing the fear they experience in their new surroundings, their tentative acceptance of their new mother Annabel and their unwavering loyalty to ‘Mama.’ As the girls slowly come back from the brink, Annabel eventually lets her guard drop and her maternal, nurturing side comes to the fore (the scene where she warms the hands of the youngest girl is incredibly moving, and manages to be so without a shred of schmaltz), just in time for her to fully emerge as a fiercely protective lioness by the denouement. The majority of the film concerns her tender-footed investigation into the mystery surrounding the girls’ survival in the woods, and what she gradually pieces together is a surprisingly touching and tragic back-story. Meanwhile the girls continue to sing lullabies to something lurking in their wardrobe…
Just when you think you’ve figured out how events will conclude, the ending, when it comes, proves to be a hauntingly powerful one; the kind that lingers long in the mind after the lights have gone up in the theatre and you’re rudely plunged back into reality, reeling and blinking into the harsh light of the foyer. As harsh as those lights are though, you might still find that Mama continues to clutch at the hairs on the back of your neck; and at your heartstrings.