Movie Review: Mama
By Matthew Huntley
January 22, 2013

Forget your mama. At the box office right now, I'm your daddy.

Consider the following shot from Andrés Muschietti’s Mama: The camera holds as the caregiver for two disturbed little girls performs household chores on the left side of the screen, deep in the background. The eldest girl also enters the frame on the left. On the right side of the screen, closer to the foreground, is the youngest girl, who plays tug-of-war with someone in her room - someone we can’t see. The catch: the caregiver and the two girls are the only corporeal beings in the house. The shot continues with only natural, diegetic sounds being heard.

This simple, elegant two-shot is one of several creepy, chill-inducing moments in the film and it illustrates what’s wrong with most horror movies - they go overboard with sensationalism, both visually and aurally, by constantly moving the camera, incessantly cutting and piling on the loud crescendos and “Gotcha!”-type moments, often to the point where we become numb to the intended effects. Not that Mama completely refrains from employing such schemes, but Muschietti puts them to good use after the subtle, observant shots like I just described. By playing it slow and steady most of the time, the movie sort of earns the right to employ more traditional gimmicks later on.

Mama is what a horror movie should be. It’s more or less a ghost story, not terribly unlike what we’ve seen before, but it’s crafty, scary and even emotional. It’s also buoyed by strong performances, which is another rarity for the horror genre. Whereas the effect of most horror is temporary and cheap, parts of Mama stay with us because Muschietti believes it contains a genuine story worthy of good filmmaking. It does, and we come to appreciate it.

The film opens with a developing news story about an investment company that’s suddenly gone bankrupt and two of its three partners have been shot. The third partner is Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the shooter, who races home and kidnaps his two daughters, three-year-old Victoria and one-year-old Lilly. He drives up to the mountains outside of Richmond, Virginia but skids off the icy roads into the woods. While trudging through the snow, the father and daughters happen upon an old, abandoned house. Jeffrey, who also killed his wife, is fraught with guilt and doesn’t even hear Victoria when she says there’s a woman standing outside who “isn’t touching the ground.” Just as he’s about to kill his own daughter, a skinny, floating being with stretched out arms grabs him and breaks his neck. Meet Mama.

Five years pass and Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is still financing a search for his brother and two nieces. Lucas’ girlfriend, Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), thinks it’s fine if he wants to keep looking for them. After all, she says, “it’s cheaper than therapy.” The problem is their money is running out. He’s an artist and she, with her black hair and tattoos, plays electric guitar in a rock band. Then Lucas receives word the two girls have been found alive in the same cabin where Jeffrey was killed. The girls are dirty and feral, crawling around on all fours like animals. They survived mostly on cherries but a near lifetime of desolation has left them understandably shy, speechless and agitated.

Lucas wants to parent the girls, despite the reservations of Annabelle, who’s admittedly not the mothering type. The psychiatrist assigned to the case, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), says he’ll recommend to the judge that Lucas gain custody of his nieces instead of their Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) so long as he and Annabelle agree to raise them in a house owned by the doctor’s institute, rent-free. The house is used for case studies and there’s something about Victoria and Lilly’s situation that Dr. Dreyfuss finds intriguing. Heck, if being a psychiatric case study means living rent-free in a huge house, sign me up.

As you no doubt guessed, when the girls move in with Lucas and Annabelle, strange phenomena of the supernatural kind start to occur. Annabelle sees ghoulish figures and hears a woman’s voice singing lullabies. She’s also warned by Victoria, “Don’t open the closet.” Dr. Dreyfuss notices Victoria, who’s regained most of her vocabulary and socialization skills, looking off at something during their sessions. Poor Lilly, on the other hand, is pretty much out to lunch. She still insists on sleeping on the floor, and when she’s not feeding on cherries or butterflies, she’s chewing on her sister’s hair.

Mama delivers a lot of things we’ve come to expect from the genre, and even though the story may not be exactly inspired, it makes for solid horror fare, mostly because of the smart characters and good performances. Jessica Chastain, I’m convinced, can play just about any part and make it distinct and convincing. Consider her recent repertoire: a tough Mossad agent in The Debt, playing the younger version of Helen Mirren; the tolerant and caring wife of a distraught man who has apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter; a grieving mother in Tree of Life; a slightly scatterbrained Southern housewife in The Help; and, most recently, a determined CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. All of these roles have almost nothing in common and Chastain is able to make each one of them fully realized. The woman has range.

But the movie’s younger actresses deserve just as much credit. As Victoria and Lilly, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse don’t simply fulfill the thankless “helpless child” roles. They have presence, and typically when children’s performances are this strong, it’s because the director trusts them and lets them perform without over-directing. Rather than relegate Charpentier and Nélisse to be the token screamers and victims, he gives them meaningful scenes with weight.

Horror tends to be one of the lesser respected movie genres because the underlying material is often viewed as silly or unimportant. Oftentimes, it doesn’t even seem to have the respect of the filmmakers, who simply throw the same old conventions and clichés at the screen and hope some of them will stick. Muschietti is different. He actually cares about telling an effective story that’s not just about scares, but also emotion. He co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Barbara along with Neil Cross, adapting it from his own short film of the same name. He’s obviously put a lot of effort into this project and his skillful techniques and patience pay off. No doubt it was these qualities that caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro, who, along with executive producer, is given a “presents” credit. del Toro tends to knows good filmmakers when he sees them and the Muschietti siblings are his latest two.