I often compare horror flicks to modern fairy tales, but no filmmaker blurs the line between these two genres more convincingly than Guillermo Del Toro, who, as a producer, has given us the likes of The Orphanage (2007), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011), and now Mama, all atmospheric features that mix contemporary tragedy with age-old folklore to chilling effect. Each also pertains to an adoption of sort, but that’s neither here nor there. One can’t deny that these films follow a distinct template, one that remains flexible enough to compel scary movie fans young and old alike.
Modern hardship is introduced in Mama right off the bat as the financial crash of 2008 prompts a desperate father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to attempt murder-suicide with his two daughters. Five years later, his twin brother Jeffrey (still Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finds the girls in a feral state, surviving off wild cherries in the woods. Having spent all of his savings searching for them, he accepts to bring up his nieces in a state-owned spooky mansion, where the opportunistic Dr Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) can study them. The news comes much to the chagrin of his punk rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who never wanted to raise children, let alone ones that leap around like cats and growl when you try to touch them.
This angle alone would’ve made for an effective drama with more than a few scary bits. The sisters certainly prove creepy enough with their animal-like demeanour and digitally enhanced movements, but, more to the point, Mama takes the time to develop their characters. For instance, we sense that Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), who was barely a year and a half when she lost her parents, may have already passed onto another plane. In contrast, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) seems torn between the civilised world that betrayed her and the untamed existence that still frightens her today.
I also like Annabel’s character arc, the fact that she bonds with her charges by taking responsibility as an adult rather than by unleashing her “redeeming inner mom”, thereby sidestepping a tired (not to mention sexist) Hollywood cliché. This makes her scenes alone with the kids all the more nerve-racking, seeing as only one foster parent needs to make it to the finish line really, and, for all we know, it could be the catty aunt (Jane Moffat) suing for custody. All have the girls’ best interest at heart, but, as Victoria warns, “Mama gets jealous…”
Here’s where the fairy tale element kicks in: Victoria and Lilly have a secret guardian called Mama (Jane Moffat again) who creeps through the walls at night and attacks whoever so much as looks at them wrong. I dig her design, which marries some of the creepiest elements of Eastern and Western folklore. For example, her long, dark hair and guttural shriek seem straight out of J-horror, while her beady eyes and shrub-like limbs draw from European story books. Whether the creature truly is the girl’s mother, a ghost, or something else entirely is treated as a mystery. However, be warned: the screenplay provides few red herrings, making the solution a tad underwhelming.
The more interesting question lies in whether Mama understands her actions. An hour into the film, one of them know-it-all librarians so common in these movies explains that “a ghost is a twisted emotion, like a corpse in the sun.” I find romance in the notion and what it implies about the spectre’s motivations, presuming she is indeed a ghost and the archivist wasn’t talking out of her ass. The answer comes in the form of a throwaway line at the climax, which I won’t spoil, of course, though it’s worth noting that the monster turns out a full-rounded character for once instead of a relentless killing machine.
This makes the final act somewhat of a punch in the gut, a well-known tradition in Guillermo Del Toro productions. In keeping with the formula, Mama concludes with a bittersweet sacrifice, one few viewers will see coming. Director Andrés Muschietti measures the moment perfectly, using poetic supernatural flourishes to attenuate the tragedy without ever really flinching from it. Granted, I wish composer Fernando Velázquez had shown the same restraint, and the narrative cuts off with perhaps a few too many questions left unanswered. I mean, how are the survivors going to explain this mess to the authorities? We can only assume they live happily ever after.