It always comes back to children lost in the woods, doesn’t it? No matter how much we dress up our horror movies, no matter how gory or not-for-kids they try to be, they must tap into that fairy-tale fundament if they’re going to work. We need to feel like we did when we were five, reading Hansel and Gretel with wide eyes and wondering fearfully if they were going to be eaten. We need to sense the Brothers Grimm fatalism of lost, lonely souls far from home, and how those wolves in the shadows never truly stop hunting them. We to know – really know – what little boys and girls sense in their guts: that the world is a dark and dangerous place, and only by keeping your wits about you can you hope to survive. If a horror movie finds that feeling, the rest is just window dressing. It might work otherwise, but it does so without the genre’s biggest weapon.
Mama understands that feeling extremely well, as befits its producer Guillermo del Toro. The auteur constantly returns to fairy tales in his work, with the keen understanding that their themes don’t go away once we become adults. He’s joined in this endeavor by first-time director Andres Muschietti, whose freaky-as-shit 2008 short served as the basis for this feature length production. It’s not perfect: stock scares battle against the more potent themes, and you can feel the padding from time to time. But that pales in comparison not only to its strengths as a knee-jerk horror film, but the way it conveys those potent Brothers Grimm notions that really get us where we sleep.
The set-up is a tad convoluted and requires more exposition than perhaps it needs. A depressed stockbroker (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) loses his mind, shoots his wife, and flees into the Virginia wilderness with his two daughters in tow. After several misadventures, they arrive in a seemingly abandoned cabin, where he attempts to kill his eldest, three-year-old Victoria (initially Morgan McGarry, later Megan Carpenter). He’s interrupted by… something… and the girls are left parentless. Five years later, a search party finds them, thanks to the diligent efforts of the stockbroker’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau), who never gave up looking. How they survived all that time is a huge mystery, but they’ve gone all wolf-spawn on us in the interim and need a lot of help to re-enter normal society. Lucas takes on the task, helped by his initially reluctant girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Unfortunately for them, that something I mentioned last paragraph isn’t ready to cut the apron strings yet. Cue the spooky music and reverse-flow spider-walks.
Muschietti demonstrates a great deal of confidence behind the camera, using suggestion and inference to punctuate the suitably intense money shots. His sense of space, in particular, feels polished and sharp, and while the house where most of the action takes place could have come from any horror movie, the director’s camera invests it with real menace.
He’s also dedicated to exploring the deeper ideas beneath the surface of his tale: the powerful bond between mothers and children and what happens when those bonds become frayed. His monster isn’t evil, just twisted by unspeakable tragedy and unable to see the damage she causes. That makes her far more interesting than your run-of-the-mill boogeyman, without diminishing any of her scary potential. She also dovetails nicely into Chastain’s character, who doesn’t follow your typical horror tropes. Annabel plays bass in a band and is thrilled by her bohemian lifestyle with starving-artist Lucas. Being a mom is not part of the plan and the way she slowly grapples with the role forms a key part of the film’s appeal.
Such elements make for a very solid foundation… so solid, in fact, that they might have turned Mama into a masterpiece had the filmmakers pushed themselves a little further. As it stands, we need to put up with a few distractions here and there. One subplot involving a nosy psychiatrist exists solely to throw plot exposition at us, while the obvious victims typically arrive with a too much heavy-handed set-up. (“That lady’s acting like a world-class bitch; I wonder if she’ll survive until the closing credits…”) As a feature-length film based on a short, it tends to generate complications for complications’ sake, which prevents the story from really firing all cylinders.
Against that, Mama responds with pure old-fashioned filmmaking, girded by some smarter-than-average tactics deployed with confidence and grace. It doesn’t reach the greatness of del Toro’s best, but for a January release, its sophistication really sneaks up on you. Muschietti definitely has a future in this genre if he chooses to pursue it. Based on what Mama has to show us, horror movies will be much improved by his presence.
(Also, for those so interested, here’s Muschietti’s original short. It’s got the spooky in spades.)