One thing becomes clear if you watch the horror films that Guillermo Del Toro is involved in: more often than not, he sympathizes with the monsters more than any of the “regular” humans who appear in the films. No doubt that was one of the things that drew him to “Mama,” a project that began as a short film and that is now a full-length feature starring Jessica Chastain, opening in theaters everywhere on Friday. While the titular specter is creepy and at times very threatening, there is a sadness that ultimately defines who or what “Mama” really is, and that seems more important than the scares.
It’s an interesting choice considering how often modern horror films seem to exist merely to service cheap shock gags, but Del Toro is nothing if not a lover of the classic tropes of the genre. His movie “The Devil’s Backbone” is a good example of a ghost story that has more on its mind than just SCARE SCARE SCARE SCARE, and his movie “Pan’s Labyrinth” may include monsters and supernatural landscapes, but it’s hardly an empty thrill ride. And while Del Toro is not the primary author of “Mama,” his name is certainly being used prominently to help sell this to the public because Universal believes (correctly, I suspect) that Del Toro has managed to define a certain kind of horror that he is associated with. I didn’t love “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,” but I think it’s another solid example of the sensibility that Del Toro responds to in other filmmakers. In that case, he and Matthew Robbins wrote a script that Troy Nixey ended up directing, and you can definitely feel his influence in the film’s DNA.
This time, Del Toro reacted to a short film by Andres Muschietti, and he helped the director develop the material as a feature. Muschietti directs from a script he wrote with Barbara, his producer/wife (who also produced the original short), as well as Neil Cross, a writer with a bunch of UK TV credits, and it certainly feels like the feature is the logical extension of what the short did very well. I’ll first say that there are some elements of the film that feel visually familiar, and the more ghost stories you’ve seen, the more likely it is you’ll feel like you’ve seen the things that have influenced this film’s signature elements. Even so, Muschietti has a really strong command in terms of how he stages his scenes to maximize the impact of an idea, and the film is exquisitely designed in terms of sound, something that is crucial for a horror filmmaker.
The film gets off to a sad and ugly start as we hear about a financial meltdown that triggers a number of tragic consequences. In particular, we see one guy, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who hits the wall when the company he is in financial charge of goes into free-fall. He kills his business partners, then drives home and kills his wife, who he is in the process of divorcing. His two very young children are in the house, listening to all of this, and when he comes down the hall to the playroom where Victoria (Morgan McGarry) and her baby sister Lily (Maya Dawe) are waiting, it’s a genuinely tense and upsetting beat. This guy’s got a gun. He’s obviously got nothing left to lose. And his kids know something’s really wrong. He puts them in a car and takes them out, into the mountains, into the snow, into the night with no real plan for what he’s going to do. And by this point, the girls are really freaked out, as they should be, and Muschietti really takes his time, slowly turning the screws. By the time the three of them end up in what appears to be an abandoned house in the middle of a dark forest, with something moving around in the darkness with them, I think it’s reached a sort of sustained tense awful darkness that is impressive. And again… there are some moves he makes that feel like moves you’ve seen in a number of other movies, but then he’s got a moment as lovely and awful as when Lily looks out the window and says, almost off-handedly, “There’s a lady outside and she’s not touching the ground” to her distraught father who’s not really listening.
It’s a strong set-up, and the film jumps forward in time a full five years. Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas has spent the whole five years looking for some sign of his brother and the girls. He believes that they’re still out there, and it is through his efforts that the girls are finally discovered, still living in that house. They are feral, pure animal, and they’ve pretty much lost all language skills. Working with a psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the girls start to adjust back to the idea of a normal life. As Victoria’s language skills return, and as they draw pictures of their life in the woods, they tell the doctor about “Mama,” a strange figure they claim took care of them and fed them and loved them. Lucas wants to raise the girls. He wants to help them return to normal. They’re drawn to him because he looks exactly like their father, but it’s complicated. Lucas is in love with Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a bass player in a rock band, and it’s a really striking look for her. Dark hair, cut short, all hips and ass and tight Misfits t-shirts, Annabel is hardly the typical prototype for a homemaker, and at first, she isn’t sure she wants anything to do with Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse). The young actresses are pushed to some extreme and unusual places, and they seem up to whatever they’re asked to do. It’s strong work by them, and I think Nelisse in particular has a tough part to play for a kid. Lilly isn’t sure she wants a normal life. All she’s ever known is Mama. To her, that’s normal. That’s the way things are supposed to work. She feels loved. She feels safe. I think when you strip all the effects and supernatural trappings away from this, the film is really wounded and painful. The idea that these little girls had to adjust to an unthinkable life in unthinkable conditions and that they found a way to make it work… that’s rough, and I think the film treats that seriously. They don’t just gloss it over.
Little by little, Mama begins to assert her claim on the girls, and it becomes obvious that she’s not ready to let them go. She is a very real presence, and the film makes that clear pretty early. It’s not a game about whether or not she exists. Instead, it’s a battle between Mama, who so desperately wants to keep these girls as her own, and Annabel, who isn’t sure she has a maternal bone in her body, and Chastain does strong work charting the slow process that Annabel goes through as she realizes just how important it is to her to save these girls. Because Mama is painted in an empathetic manner, it’s not a simple case of good versus evil at the end of the movie, and to the film’s credit, no easy answer is offered. The ending is bittersweet, as heartbroken as the rest of the film, and I’m glad it doesn’t just wrap everything up easily with a quick fix, with Mama dispatched as a mere boogedy-boogedy, something rotten to be wiped away. Coster-Waldau tries to make a meal of the dual role he plays, but he gets sidelined as both characters, and Chastain eventually emerges as the real protagonist. Tech credits are strong, and the physical work that Javier Botet does as Mama is really freaky. He’s one of those guys like Doug Jones who is so good as what he does and so oddly constructed that it would be easy to assume Mama is purely a CGI creation. That’s not the case, though, and I think his work is very important to selling the sadness that underscores the character’s conception.
“Mama” is at its weakest when it leans on certain devices that are very familiar, like the moth motif or the rotting wallpaper stains or the floating wet ghostly look, but it deserves credit for taking this material seriously, by trying to push the scares to a deeper emotional place. “Mama” lands enough of what it’s trying to do that I suspect audiences will feel largely satisfied, and that the character has a lingering power that marks the film as a success. If you set your expectations properly and realize that this isn’t about some boring force of pure random evil, but is instead a classic sort of a ghost story about lingering pain and horror, you may find “Mama” quite effective, indeed.
“Mama” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.