The amount of films Guillermo Del Toro has lent his name to over the past few years makes him seem like an eccentric collector, or perhaps a nurturing father trying to keep his children close. They’re all in the same vein as his widely acclaimed masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, usually combining elements of Spanish fairytale and European horror with a dysfunctional household setting (it’s hard not to generalise, but this is essentially what happens in each film).
The Orphanage was the first, and probably the most well-known of the group – a well-constructed twist on the missing-child genre. Then followed such films as Julia’s Eyes and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, both excellent examples of Del Toro’s influence. Mama, the debut from Spanish director Andrés Muschietti is a welcome contribution to this already rich genre.
A man drives home after shooting his ex-wife and kidnapping his two young daughters, Victoria and Lilly. Whilst speeding down a remote snow-covered road in the mountains, the car skids and goes over a cliff, unhurt they stumble to a deserted cabin where the father is taken by a tall, dark figure and never seen again. When the girls are found five years later by their uncle Lucas, they have become feral: thin, unwashed and snarling — when under observation they’re seen to talk to an invisible being they call ‘Mama’, who seems to act as a maternal substitute for the children. Only Victoria, who has retained parts of her vocabulary, is willing to re-enter the human world; Lilly, on the other hand, remains unresponsive and sits in the corner eating moths. Lucas and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) decide to raise the girls themselves, but they soon come to realise that ‘Mama’ is not just a product of over-active imaginations.
Credit must be given to the child actors in Mama. As in most horror films of the ‘pedophobic’ genre (The Exorcist, The Omen, Village of the Damned etc.) it’s hard to imagine how directors get such unnerving and sometimes terrifying performances from their young stars, particularly when surrounded by more experienced professionals, regardless, these girls are very, very good. Their roles demand a certain seriousness — unhinged yet innocent, hardened by their experiences in the wild and uncertain about their new guardians. Jessica Chastain is also enjoyable as the black haired, bass-playing girlfriend – the rock-chick attitude is authentic and very watchable as she struggles to adapt to family life, certainly a change of pace from her character in this year’s Zero Dark Thirty.
What raises Mama above the steady flow of mediocre horror is not just Del Toro’s influence, but also Muschietti’s willingness to take risks. The standard horror tropes are still very much present (creepy crayon drawings, loud noises in the night, camera flashes in a dark room etc.) but there are countless other ways in which Mama surprises its audience. There’s a dream sequence, for example, that doesn’t feel as though it belongs in the main narrative at all, so different in style and tone that it could easily pass as a surreal short film of its own. The glimpses we get of ‘Mama’ herself are brilliant; so fleeting, fantastical and unexpected that you want to see more of her, yet at the same time, you really don’t.
Mama is a satisfying combination of fantasy and horror. If you yearn for more of what Pan’s Labyrinth offered, it may not fill that gap, but it undoubtedly tries hard.