Mama began its decidedly creepy life almost five years ago as a web short shot in Spanish. The craftsmanship and scare factor were such that Guillermo del Toro was inspired to help sibling creators Andrés and Barbara Muschietti expand their story into a feature. Of course, there are dangers in trading the narrative freedom of the short form for the high pressure of the Big Leagues, but thankfully the Muschiettis’ vision remains intact—Mama is a terrifying success.
The story is a direct expansion of the web short, and even includes a modified version of it as one of the scenes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (whom some may recognize as Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) plays Lucas, an illustrator whose two young nieces have been missing for five years after his twin brother committed a horrible crime and fled with them. Rescuers find the girls in a cabin in the woods, alive, but unkempt and practically feral. When she finally speaks again, the elder daughter, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), claims they were kept alive by a mysterious woman the girls simply called “Mama.” Now Lucas and his tattooed rocker-chick girlfriend (played by Hollywood “it” girl, Jessica Chastain) have to take custody of the girls and rehabilitate them back to a normal life. Which would be hard enough, except it becomes immediately clear that “Mama” might have followed them to their new home.
While there’s nothing particularly original about the film, familiar elements come together to great effect. The first shot, for example, is of a car with the door open, empty but running, the radio blaring news. It’s a visual that brims with implication, arresting in its simplicity. There are any number of classic and not-so-classic horror films that explore the inherent eeriness of children, but Andrés Muschietti manages to make the kids seem otherworldly and dangerous with just body movement and a few staging tricks. It may sound a little film-school haughty to say there’s a visual vocabulary at work in something like this, but the thought put into the composition really comes through.
Muschietti also gets some solid performances out of his actors, especially Jessica Chastain. It’s hard not to sympathize with her character, Annabel, thrust into the “mother” of all bad fostering situations.
The design of “Mama,” the creature, is just horrifyingly wrong, but in the right way. It’s almost as if she’s the demented marriage of the uncanny valley and a forest elemental—kind of like a female version of Munch’s “Scream” figure. The sound design deserves special mention as well, with the nastiest, most unearthly moans since The Grudge.
If there’s anything to gripe about, it’s that the character of Lucas winds up feeling a little unnecessary, and the ending is a bit of an unsupported stretch. But overall, Mama is a haunting, thrilling fairy tale about the dark side of the maternal instinct. A modern commercial horror film that’s not found-footage, a sequel or a remake is hard enough to find these days—rarer still is one that works this well.
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Writers: Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, Neil Cross
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse
Release Date: Jan. 18, 2013