There seems to be a rash of ghostly horror movies hitting theaters over the past few years. From titles that really caught the audience’s attention like Insidious and The Woman in Black to crap like The Haunting in Connecticut and Sinister, it seems everyone has their idea of what makes a ghost story great. It also seems like the trend lately is to put children in danger, upping the tension of the plot.
What makes Mama an above average ghost movie, and one miles better than Sinister was just last year, is the presence of Guillermo Del Toro in the production chair. Del Toro knows how to make a ghost movie right, as evident by The Devil’s Backbone, a Spanish-language film that makes all the recent efforts pale in comparison. It was The Devil’s Backbone that gave J.A. Bayona the chance to make the wonderful The Orphanage, with Del Toro wearing the producer’s hat there as well.
While Mama never comes close to the brilliance of The Devil’s Backbone, or even The Orphanage for that matter, it does succeed thanks to the influence of Del Toro’s movies that obviously shine through.
Mama opens with a horrific sequence, where a father kills two co-workers (heard on the radio news broadcast), then shoots and kills his estranged wife (done off-screen) and finally kidnaps his two children, a young girl and a toddler. While driving through a snow storm, trying to escape, he wrecks his car and ends up on foot with his kids. He finds a cabin in the woods and takes refuge. It is then that he decides to kill his daughters as well, but a mysterious creature shows up and saves the little girls, whisking the father away to God knows where.
The movie then switches to the present day. The father’s brother has spent his entire life savings trying to find his brother and nieces, and finally strikes gold when the cabin is found and the girls are saved. The movie takes a fantastic turn here, as both children feral (and very freaky). The toddler is now school aged and has never been around civilization since she was a baby. Her older sister is easier to re-teach and starts to come around.
When their uncle and his girlfriend are granted custody, they hope to reintegrate the girls into society, but unfortunately for them, the creature who saved the girls, and still protects over them, follows and is a very jealous and obsessive creature.
What really makes this movie something different, and something special, is the fact that the horror aspects are there in full effect, but there is also a Grimm’s fairy tale feeling to the entire story. There are bumps, jump scares, creepy gothic creatures and a nicely designed Mama to haunt the house, but there is also a touch of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth here, a story of children who have to choose between the real world and the protective, yet dangerous, world of fairy tales. The end of the movie completely embraces this fairy tale aspect and helps Mama rise to a completely new level.
While one might think the uncle would be the character focused on as the girls arrive, it is actually his girlfriend Annabel who takes the center stage. Oscar nominated actress Jessica Chastain takes on this role and is barely recognizable, with short black hair and a heavy metal personality. She is also the character who goes through the best character development in the movie, starting as a woman who doesn’t want kids to becoming a very protective mother-type character.
The two little girls are played extremely well by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse. Isabelle is the real shining star here, the young actress playing the feral Lily and remaining more than creepy throughout the entire movie. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also solid in his dual portrayal as the girl’s dad and the uncle, playing the two characters in such a way that each has their own distinct personality.
There are some major problems that pull down the score. First of all, there is the entire horror staple of people doing very stupid things. Characters head out into the woods in search of something late at night with nothing more than a flashlight, when they could easily have waited until daylight. There is one scene where a psychiatrist heads out to confront Mama, in the middle of the night, and leaves the evidence he believes will win her over back in his office. It is a ridiculous plot point that damages the flow of the story. You just want characters like this to die.
That psychiatrist is also a problem, a character with dark ulterior motives that are never realistically explained in the movie. He is just doing what he does to write a book, possibly to make him famous, but he comes across as flat and uninteresting. In a movie with some great character development with Annabel and the girls, as well as Mama herself, this lackluster psychiatrist sticks out like a sore thumb.
At the end of the day Mama is a creepy, disturbing horror movie with some fantastic fairy tale aspects. There are moments where the characters just seem too stupid to live, but there is enough here to recommend it to anyone looking for a smarter ghost story in a genre filled with nothing but lackluster efforts.