Movie Review: Mama
By Matthew Huntley
January 22, 2013
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.