If you are a young director, having your work noticed by someone like Guillermo Del Toro, someone who is beloved by both critics and audiences for his recognizable visual style and imaginative storytelling is probably a dream come true. For Andrés Muschietti, that’s exactly what happened, and Del Toro agreed to executive produce Mama, which is essentially a do-over of Muschietti’s 2008 short film Mamá (note the Americanization in the new title). Mamá gave us just two kids and a monster. With Mama, we have two kids, Victoria and Lily, left to the care of the mysterious Mama, and their father who kills his wife, crashes his car, and scurries to a remote cabin that becomes his resting place. When the girls are discovered years later after their Uncle Lucas’ (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays the father) unrelenting search, they have to slowly adapt to the civilized life under him and his wife Annabel (Jessica Chastain, rocking short black hair and a Misfits t-shirt).
When we first meet Annabel and Lucas, we learn that Annabel absolutely does not want kids, but when she finds herself becoming the legal guardian of two kids she long assumed dead. Because she loves Lucas, she quits her band, moves into a nice house, and reluctantly becomes a mother. Mama unfolds a bit haphazardly after the set-up, as a controlling aunt who wants guardianship of the kid never seems to have a place in the story, and the therapy sessions between Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) and the older girl, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), which always focus on the doctor trying to discern who “Mama,” the oft-referenced and mysterious protector of the girls, really is, are less creepy than the regular household setting. The therapy is mostly a jumping-off point for a back-story which contains the usual clichés of ghosts, mental hospitals, and mothers killing their children. It’s a story we have heard a million times before and as it unfolds more and more it becomes increasingly contrived, so it mostly leaves us craving Annabel’s paranoia and her difficulties with adapting to an unplanned motherhood for children who need extra care. It’s that metaphor, a bit obvious, but timelier now than ever before, that drives Mama while Jessica Chastain’s performance holds strong even as it occasionally drips into melodrama. It may not be the most original horror movie, but it moves forward with a keenly denoted subtext, and the tendency for psychological scares instead of violent ones pulls in to the very real terror of new and sudden motherhood.
Mama is made with all the expected horror syntax, from the musical cues to the reverse-shot jump scares and thing lurking just behind an obstacle/just out of frame, and while these devices grow old rather quickly, the surprisingly impressive cinematography of Antonio Riestra makes us more forgiving. There are a number of suspenseful, patient shots scattered throughout Mama, from an early one in which the inside wall of a hallway divides Annabel and Victoria from Lily and mysterious happenings in the bedroom. It’s not the most original shot, but there are a number of near-misses, and the creepiness comes mostly from the staging, lighting, and deliberateness with which Annabel and Victoria interact on half the screen while Lily seems enthralled but not exactly endangered on the other half. What we do finally see lingers with us, giving subsequent scenes not just a fear-of-the-unknown but a genuine danger lurking just out of every frame. The tension comes entirely from a bold, confident direction, and the detail of the sets—particularly in the film’s pre-title section and the departures from the house—are picturesquely conceived, and the sepia-toned dreams and visions are uniquely beautiful. Mama doesn’t need to be anything new to still be thoroughly and impressive in its own way. Even in the film’s opening sequence, the radio talk about how a stock-market in dive often leads to increases in suicides creates a timely, economic undercurrent that makes it clear the film has more on its mind than just scares or world-building, sequel-preparing backstory.
When the film reaches its apex, a tracking shot several minutes long that follows the girls from their room, down the stairs, and then back up and finally across the hallway, suspense levels are at their highest, but Muschietti lets things run their course, and the film goes on for around 15 minutes longer than it should in a meaning that is partially obvious and mostly confused and, quite frankly, stupid. It ruins the film’s momentum and demolishes the familial subtext, opting for melodrama and piling on sentimentality when it could be poignant and touching in a much less showy way. It’s a giant smear on an otherwise important metaphor.
At the end of the day, Mama is only a little bit new, but well-done from an atmospheric standpoint. Its writing is mediocre at best, but in a genre dominated by re-treads, predictability, and jump-scares worthy of an eye-roll (see: the latest Paranormal Activity), such fine direction and cinematic look make forgiving Mama forgivable. Even through its obvious failures, it’s a welcome take on tired subject matter with a lot to offer, and that makes, and up until the end, it’s a ride that’s very easy to enjoy. Even when you complain about the ending or the story in general, the hour and a half preceding it is worthy justification.