We’re all about comics here at Panels on Pages, but a geek cannot live on comics alone. Outside the Longbox is our chance to spotlight something outside our typical four-color realm – be it movies, music, TV or whatever.
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, and Jane Moffat
Many of us at PoP! have expressed displeasure at the concept of horror movies that are rated PG-13 on the grounds that they are less frightening than their R-rated counterparts. In some cases, that assumption is accurate, but there have been a handful of recent horror films that managed to be quite effective, even without the explicit gore that has been featured in most entries in the genre that have come out in the post-Halloween era. One such example is Andrés Muschietti’s Mama, which has been one of the few movies released in the early weeks of 2013 that has successfully found an audience. This quiet, chilling ghost story starring two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain made almost double its $15 million budget back in its first week of release and has overshadowed the far bloodier Texas Chainsaw 3D in the eyes of both critics and general audiences.
Mama tells the story of two young girls named Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) who were kidnapped by their father Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones) after he murdered his wife and coworkers during the economic collapse of 2008. After his car runs off the road, he takes the girls to an abandoned cabin in the wilderness where he tries to shoot them before offing himself. Before he can do that, however, he is attacked and killed by a mysterious creature hiding in the shadows. The movie then picks up five years later, when Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) manages to find the girls, now aged eight and six, in that same cabin. The girls are taken to an institution, where they are observed and analyzed by child psychologist named Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who tries to find out how they managed to survive on their own for so long. Both girls are feral in their behavior, walking on all fours and communicating mostly in grunts and growls, though Victoria has more of an advanced grasp of English since she is older. Dreyfuss agrees to help put the girls in the care of Lucas and his live-in girlfriend Annabelle (Chastain) on the grounds that he still have access to them in order to continue his study of their reintegration to society.
Being put in charge of two emotionally traumatized and developmentally stunted young children places a great burden on Annabelle, who is having trouble bonding with Victoria and Lilly. Dr. Dreyfuss frequently visits the girls, asking them about their time spent in the cabin and especially about a maternal figure that they named “Mama” that Dreyfuss suspects is an imaginary friend they invented to help cope with being left in a house with no adult figure. We of course know that this “Mama” figure is really the apparition that killed their father and has now found a way to enter Lucas and Annabelle’s home in order to watch over her “adopted” children. After discovering what is later revealed to be a portal between the house and the cabin, Lucas is severely injured by Mama and is hospitalized. This of course leaves Annabelle the sole guardian of the two girls, and as she grows closer to them, she begins to feel the presence of the tortured spirit that is unwilling to let them go.
Mama was originally presented as a Spanish-language 2008 short film by the director and was remade as a feature with financial help from genre auteur Guillermo Del Toro. The film has a handful of “jump and scare” moments, but overall it relies on old-fashioned cinematic methods such as camera placement and lighting to generate a creepy atmosphere for the majority of the film. We don’t get a very good look at Mama for the first two-thirds of the film, which helps reinforce the overall feeling of dread that Muschetti is going for. There is one shot in particular that features Lilly playing in her room with who we assume is Victoria with the door half open while Annabelle is walking down the hallway with a laundry basket. We then see Victoria walking into the hallway while Lilly is still playing, and then we are shown a grey, emaciated hand pick Lilly up while she giggles with delight in her room. There are several scenes like this in the first hour of Mama that subtly insert disturbing supernatural imagery in what would otherwise be an ordinary scene of domestic life, which I greatly admired.
Admittedly, the movie loses most of its effectiveness in the third act, after Annabelle learns about Mama’s backstory and we finally see the ghost in full. The special effects are mostly computer-generated and, while they are competently done, they aren’t quite as effective as the earlier scenes where Mama is partially obscured by shadow or hidden by other objects on the screen. The movie’s ending tries to offer an emotional payoff but it doesn’t quite match the harrowing beginning and highly suspenseful middle section. However, the first two-thirds of Mama provide an original and unsettling riff on a well-worn horror subgenre. As a parent of two young children, the subject matter gripped me from the beginning, and the themes of the film offer some interesting points on the nature vs. nurture debate that I enjoyed. Chastain is very good in a role that offers a change of pace from the domestic, motherly parts she played in such films as The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, but the best performances in the film belong to the two child actresses, both of whom are extremely naturalistic and believable. Even with its disappointing finale, Mama still stands out as a quality entry in the supernatural horror genre and is an impressive debut for Andrés Muschietti, who hopefully will get more opportunity to make interesting genre films and not just be hired to work on Paranormal Activity sequels. For offering a mostly fresh, original, and spooky as hell onscreen ghost story, Mama gets 4 out of 5 Handmade Dolls.