After having seen Zero Dark Thirty, which also stars Jessica Chastain, the night prior to seeing Mama, I can say with 100% certainty that Chastain looks ridiculous as Hollywood’s interpretation of a “Goth”. It feels ridiculous to even say that’s what she is! The black, mushroom haircut, the fake tattoos, the fact that she’s in a band, the horrible clothing that was probably purchased at a Hot Topic, it was all just so embarrassing. Sorry, I just had to get that out of the way, especially because she is normally attractive and was made to look like an idiot. Anyways, I knew that Guillermo del Toro was involved with the making of this movie, and I incorrectly thought he had directed it himself. I WAS WRONG. It was directed by Andrés Muschietti who had come up with the story with his wife (possibly sister, I didn’t do much research) Barbara Muschietti. Having never seen anything those two had done prior, I didn’t really know what to expect, but with Guillermo del Toro “presenting” this movie, his endorsement made me think it would be pretty good. I knew it wouldn’t be great, because if the story was THAT good, I feel like del Toro would have directed it himself, so I figured I’d enjoy it at least as much as something like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The fact that this movie was released in January was another thing that made me lower my expectations a little bit, as January isn’t really a time that great horror movies are released. Or at least, January has horror movies that have good trailers but end up being pretty shitty, like last year’s The Devil Inside or 2009’s The Unborn. That does bring up another connection to those two disappointing movies, which is that the trailers for this movie made it look pretty scary. Ultimately, I’m glad to have given this movie a few weeks after having been released before seeing it so my expectations could be throttled at least a little bit. Because the ending is a bit of an issue with a lot of people, I want to give my thoughts on the ending, so consider that your spoiler alert, alright?
HOW DID YOUR FEET TURN INTO HANDS?! Oh, wait, there’s two of you. Carry on.
The opening sequence of the film involves the words “Once upon a time…” being written on the screen, followed by a man taking his two daughters into the woods after we hear on the news that he has just murdered his wife. When the father finds a cabin, we see that he’s planning on killing his children as well, when a black figure snaps his neck, leaving the children on their own. Four years later, we see the father’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also played the father) and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) using their resources to find the two girls. When the girls are found, they are wild and crazy kids (yes, JUST like the TV show of the same name) and are really skinny and just these weird little freaks. When the two girls are brought to be reintroduced to a “normal” life with Lucas and Annabel, a psychiatrist tells them that the girls have revealed that something had watched over them and cared for them in their years in the woods, and this persona was referred to as “Mama”. Once the girls are brought home, the audience realizes this “Mama” figure is something of the supernatural, through seeing the girls playing and interacting with her and even seeing Mama shove Lucas down the stairs, causing him to enter a coma. Annabel is too overwhelmed with everything going on, and even though she senses this presence of Mama, she concentrates more on trying to connect with these two little girls. While Annabel starts to make a connection with the older girl, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), she can’t seem to break through with Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), and the psychiatrist pursues the identity of who Mama really was. It turns out that Mama was a crazy lady who jumped off of a cliff with her infant and to her death. Her infant was caught on a branch so Mama’s spirit wasn’t at rest without her baby, so she took care of Lilly and Victoria to fill that void and was harming anyone who tried to get in her way. The discovery of the truth behind Mama leads to a confrontation where Mama is trying to entice Lilly and Victoria to join her, but with her new-found connection to Annabel, Victoria resists. Being younger, Lilly ends up joining Mama and the two plummet to their deaths, leaving Lucas, Annabel, and Victoria to their new lives.
Cool tat! Doesn’t at all look like it was drawn on with a marker! Also, it adds quite that rebellious depth to your character that it needed.
Similarly to a lot of other del Toro produced films, I felt like Mama was another entry into his modern age fairy tale catalog. The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Orphanage, all produced by Guillermo del Toro, all have these wildly imaginative interpretations of stories and themes that we’ve seen countless time, but he still manages to make them feel original. These films also typically have exaggerated characters for the sake of telling the story, in the sense that they are dumber when they need to be dumb, more evil when the story needs a villain, or incredibly sympathetic when you need to emotionally connect with a character, and I felt that Mama was no different. If knowing del Toro’s trends with the way he deals with the supernatural wasn’t obvious to some viewers, I feel like the opening of “Once upon a time” should have been a disclaimer about those exaggerations being present. There was no doubt about Lucas being a good person and wanting to save his daughters, Annabel’s indifference/resentment at being thrown into this situation, and Mama’s inherent evil. Again, even though the story of a vengeful spirit isn’t anything new to cinema, the subject matter in this film was handled differently enough to make itself stand out against other modern horror films. I shouldn’t give Guillermo del Toro too much credit, because the movie was written/directed by the Muschietti clan, but it’s no surprise that this film felt similar to other movies he’s had more direct involvement in.
I don’t know if I’m more scared by Mama creeping in the background or those gnarly teeth.
Once I embraced the movie as a fairy tale as opposed to a horror film, I felt like I could enjoy elements in it more than other people would. For example, if you have a spooky ghost or monster in a film, you don’t want to show too much, too early, because then the ending needs to have a heightened version of what you’ve seen. We catch glimpses of Mama earlier on in the film than a horror movie would show its villain, and we see her in full form halfway through. By the time you reach the climax, there’s no question about what Mama looks like, but by now she’s a fully realized concept and character as opposed to just a striking visual used to startle people. Even though you see her quite a few times, that doesn’t take away from just how creepy Mama was portrayed. Rather than a lot of other ghost movies that have come out since the J-Horror remake boom of the last 15 years, the spirit of Mama wasn’t a delicate figure with porcelain skin and dark hair, but was a grotesquely deformed female figure that utilized mostly earth tones. If you’ve seen [REC]2 and remember the woman at the end, picture that. Mama was incredibly skinny, but also very tall, and was able to contort with her body stuck in a contortion that seemed possible, albeit disturbing. The filmmakers were still able to make Mama appear supernatural, with her incredibly fast movements and the way that her hair was constantly floating around her head, looking like she was underwater. It looks like pre-death Mama was played by Hannah Cheesman, so you could see the humanity in the spirit and in the flashback sequences, but with lots of special effects and makeup to distort her appearance. Even though I just mentioned how the ghostly image was a distinct contrast to most other ghosts of the past 15 years, the whole look of the film was very similar to that of The Ring. All of the colors were very washed out, and you just felt like the whole movie took place in a generic American town that was near a forest. Not that it really mattered the geographic location of the story, because again, it felt like a fairy tale that wanted to imply it could have happened anywhere. If you go into this movie expecting a fairy tale with some pretty creepy elements and visuals, then I think you’ll get your money’s worth, but if you expect this movie to be a more distinct horror film, I could see how someone could leave disappointed after only getting a handful of solid scares. Either way, it definitely could have been a little bit shorter, and definitely didn’t need Jessica Chastain to be a Goth.
Wolfman Moon Scale