Mama had a lot of buzz on its theatrical release, with a push from producer Guillermo Del Toro and positive word of mouth. The theatrical run seemed short-lived though, and surprisingly failed to capitalize on a starring role for Jessica Chastain, who was in theaters at the same time in Zero Dark Thirty. The film started life as a short by filmmaker Andy Muschietti that Del Toro found impressive enough to help turn it into a feature. I had really wanted to see Mama during its run, but scheduling just did not allow it so I recently caught up with the film via its new Blu-ray release.
Although a PG-13 film, Mama does not really pull any punches for a fright film with child protagonists. No this is not a bloodbath, nor does it need to be. Mama creates fear and scares out of atmosphere, suspense and one really important element–character development. Mama is the story of young Victoria and her baby sister Lilly, orphaned in an abandoned cabin in the woods after their father suffers some sort of financial breakdown, kills their mother, and eventually drives off a road with the girls in tow. Their Uncle Lucas never gives up on locating them , and five years later the girls are found. After living in the cabin alone for so long, they have grown into an animal-like state, and Lucas helps to re-integrate them into society with the help of his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) and Dr. Dreyfus, a psychiatrist who is extremely interested in this case as he wants to write a book on the girls’ experiences. He arranges for Luke and Annabel to gain custody of the girls, over their Aunt’s objections, if they agree to move into a house provided by his institute where he will have access to them whenever he wishes.
The girls constantly refer to their guardian figure, Mama, who only comes out when she cannot be seen. What is at first explained away as something the girls invented while alone in the cabin soon begins to make its presence known, and soon we are in the midst of a supernatural battle for the souls of the girls as Mama’s supernatural origins become clear.
What really makes Mama work for me is the character of Annabel. At the start of the film, she is playing in a punk rock band, and is not really looking to take on a parental role. She agrees to give up the band and go with Luke to the research house to raise the girls, but she does not bond with them easily–and not just because they are not accustomed to society. She is almost as unready to bond with the girls as they are with her. Thrust into an unwanted situation, she is at first somewhat an unsympathetic character. However, early on Luke is injured nad taken out of the pictur for a while, leaving Annabel alone to care for Victoria and Lilly. Annabel slowly begins to bond with the girls, and they bring each other out of their respective shells. It is the growth of Annabel’s character and her developing bond with the girls ( particularly the older Victoria who, due to her age, is able to regain more of her pre-cabin vocabulary and socialization) that gives the film its emotional heft. The film has some good scares along the way, and their effectiveness is deepened because we care about the people in peril.
In the end, Mama is not afraid to stay true to itself with a rather heartbreaking ending. I will not give away the details, but the film does not play it safe. Tonally, I found Mama to be a cross between Poltergeist and some of the Japanese ghost films like the Ring or Ju-On. An old-fashioned Ghost story at its core, Mama is a fine example of how a horror film can be scary and poignant without the need for over the top violence.
The transfer and audio on the Blu-ray are top-notch, and included in the extras is the original short that was the film’s genesis. Worthwhile.
- ‘Mama’: Is the Possibility of Making an Innovative Scary Movie Literally Dead? (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Mama (2013) (canadiancinephile.com)
- Mama (robgemmellsview.wordpress.com)