When I first heard about Mama last year, I made the mistake of lumping it in with all the other possession/J-horror ghost rip-off movie of the past Insidious/Sinister/Synonym-for-slow-creepy-evil spate. But I’ll admit that this one successfully unnerved me. It’s not just the fact that I’m my parents’ house (similarly large to the one in the film; except this one constantly makes weird noises). Or the fact that for the majority of the movie, I was in my room, in the dark (because the lightbulb had mysteriously burnt out), trying to keep an eye on a spider on my wall (because if you don’t track its movements, it will hide and end up hiding in your bath towel, like that one the other day).
No, it’s because I genuinely found the movie’s scares pretty effective. The plot is full of tropes (two orphaned girls are found and sent to live with their uncle, but they bring a hostile spirit with them), but with some neat twists. The girls are feral, having spent five years in an abandoned cabin after their father (who shot a bunch of colleagues and the girls’ mother at the start of the 2008 recession, and was about to shoot them and himself, too), was swallowed up by said entity and dumped in an unidentified netherworld. After subsisting only on cherries that “Mama” gives them, they are found by people hired by the girl’s uncle Lucas (both played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Older sister Jessica (Megan Charpentier) acclimates quickly, but Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) who was an infant when abandoned, is still too attached to Mama. Along with his bass-playing rockstar partner Annabel (Jessica Chastain), they relocate to a larger house under the supervision of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) to fend off the custody clutches off the girls’ great-Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat, who creepily also provides the one of the voices of Mama). All seems well as the girls settle into their new home. But Mama is overprotective. And jealous.
The scares are more effective when Mama is literally kept in the dark, though it’s not to say that, when she’s finally revealed, that it’s some rubber-faced, Jeepers Creepers-schlock moment. It’s not a bad thing at all, but the tone shifts somewhat from horror to dark fairytale. Much like in an episode of Doctor Who, the entity is lent more sympathy the more we find out about her human life, rather than using it as a means to defeat her (all of which is definitely exec producer Guillermo del Toro’s influence). Pacing is swift for what would normally be a insidious slow-burner, but the movie cuts right to it with scene after scene of uncomfortable tension.
Movies that eschew gore for old-school chills often result in more atmospheric supernatural thriller rather than flat-out horror. Not this one, and there are a handful of scenes to prove it. I may be a horror geek, but I’m obviously not that much of an extremist, because I can’t really behold the sight of physical harm befalling anyone vulnerable, let alone an infant, even in a fictional setting. Throw in some narrative shift-twists and you’ve got a chiller that naturally, simply surprises the audience rather than patronises them with needlessly contrived plot devices (like Los Ojos de Julia). Why Rotten Tomatoes consensus deems the script “confusing” I’ll never know. The story, its development and resolution are linear and uncomplicated.
Acting is excellent, especially the two little girls, effortlessly skipping between scary and adorable like baby serial killers playing jump-rope over decapitated heads. Only thing I wasn’t keen on were the visuals. While I get they had their own style, the over-use of filters, crazy contrasts and cheapy-looking CGI were all a bit jarring, and fit in better with the Seriously Horrific Fairytale vibe that doesn’t turn up until the film’s final act.
But, speaking of CGI, it turns out there wasn’t much in the making of Mama, other than her hair. “Mama” is played by [REC] actor Javier Botet, who is afflicted with Marfan syndrome, which gives him a thin frame with very long arms and hands:
And it turns out that Mama’s disjointed, spider-like sprinting was no CGI, either. All Javier.
Frankly, that’s more terrifying (and awesome) than anything in the movie.