“The time the film takes to flesh out its characters makes the finale as poignant as it is frightening.”
“Don’t look at her. She’s angry.”
Review by David Feltman
Most horror fans will tell you that a PG-13 rating is something that should be avoided in the genre (this goes for action flicks too). It typically denotes an utter lack of boobs and blood and a general mass audience mediocrity that robs the genre of all its exploitation. However, the one sub-genre that is immune to this sort of rating is the ghost story. Ghost stories trade more in suspense than either nudity or gore and the best ones utilize children in the cast to turn the screws. Allow me to introduce you to “Mama.”
Marking the first full feature for Director Andres Muschietti, under the wing of fear aficionado Guillermo del Toro, “Mama” is essentially a del Toro stamped Grimm’s fairy tale. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Orphanage,” and the less successful “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” everything from the story down to the color palette bears del Toro’s touch.
The film sets up the story within the first 10 minutes and offers the titular ghost most of its run time to let her do her work. After an act of violence, two feral little girls befriend and become protected by a remorseful spirit. When their estranged family reclaims the children, the spirit comes home with them. Shenanigans ensue.
The film would have been sufficiently creepy just on the strength of Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse performance as the two girls. The girls demonstrate a talent for eliciting as many “AHHHHS!” as “awwws” from the audience, but the contorted hitched-stepping Mama that haunts the walls is the eerie cherry on top. Mama is consistently off-putting despite the compassion the film generates for her. She is a playful protector with all the ferocity of a mother bear. The fact that the story makes her scary and sympathetic adds some unexpected depth. Likewise, Jessica Chastain plays the reluctant aunt, one moment praising God for not being pregnant and the next taking charge of two very special needs children. The time the film takes to flesh out its characters makes the finale as poignant as it is frightening.
The real star of the feature is the camera work. Cinematographer Antonio Riestra makes great use of tracking and POV shots. In particular, his framing, reminiscent of Polanski, artfully teases its scares along the edges of the screen in the first half of the film. This is a saving grace for a movie that gives arguably too much screen time to its star monster. So much screen time and a dearth of practical effects takes away some of the visceral “ummph” from the CG shade.
But that’s really the only complaint that could be lobbed at a film with such a well-executed story. Like an authentic (read non-Disney) fairy tale, the story aims for a conclusion that’s satisfying if not really happy. With a strong story supported with a strong cast, “Mama” makes for a worthwhile weekend excursion.