It’s a rare opportunity that you get to see a horror film in Australian cinemas. Distributors are so unwillingly to take the chance on an audience-restricting genre when they can take the safe route and release it straight to DVD. After debuting at No.1 at the US box office, Mama creeped into local cinemas with little more than a ghostly howl. It’s a shame. Not only is it one of the most affecting and terrifying horror films in recent years, it’s one that will stay with you like a vengeful spirit long after the credits have rolled. Mama opens somewhere, you suspect, during the 2008 financial crisis where we meet a distraught financial executive named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who sweeps his two young daughters – Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) - off on a frantic trip to Lord knows where. On the way to said destination you learn Jeffrey has gunned down two colleagues and his estranged wife earlier that morning and is intending to kill his daughters in a murder-suicide. He finds the perfect place: a deserted and (naturally) creepy cabin in the woods where he intends to do the deed. As he’s about to pull the trigger some thing interferes and kills him, leaving the two girls alone in the cabin. Yet they’re not exactly alone . . .
Fast forward five years and Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (also played by Jamie Lannister) has poured everything he has into trying to find his missing nieces and their father, who he assumes are dead. When hired trackers stumble upon the cabin they not only find the girls alive, but completely feral and emotionally disturbed from their years living in the wild. During their ‘rehabilitation’ child psychologists establish that the girls have manifested a being called Mama in the absence of an adult to look after them. After some quality time with child services they move in with Lucas and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain with a Joan Jett haircut). Although reluctant to take on the role of a mother, Annabelle sacrifices her gig in a rock band to raise Lucas’ nieces with him. When a not-so-accident lands him in hospital, Annabelle begins to suspect that something has followed the girls home. Mama might be less a figment of their imagination and more a literal being that fiercely protects the girls.
Directed by Spanish filmmaker Andres Muschietti and adapted from his short film of the same name, Mama is a sincerely creepy and emotional horror film that plays on maternal instincts. Unlike another similarly themed ghost story – The Woman In Black – Mama doesn’t rely on genre clichés to generate scares. From the opening scene to the closing one, there’s a foreboding sense of dread that’s manipulated perfectly by the filmmakers and the performers. Executive produced by the ever-brilliant Guillermo del Toro, the Spanish creator’s fingerprints are all over the film. Del Toro likes little kids. No, not like that you perve. He likes what they can portray and from his debut Cronos it’s been clear that there’s nothing quite as creepy as kids being, well, freakin’ creepy.
Coster-Waldau who – let’s be real – will forever be known as Jamie Lannister makes a great transition from an iconic character to a Joe Bloggs everyman without being forgettable (although it would have been good to see him with more screen time). The girls are spot on, particularly the more experienced Charpentier who masters emotions and fears well beyond her years. She’s one to watch. But truly, the film all hinges on Jessica Chastain and wisely so. Girl can do no wrong! Try to think of a film where she has given anything less than an extraordinary performance. It can’t be done. Chastain in Mama is like a slap to the face as the role of a no-nonsense rock chick is so unlike anything she has done before. Her character arc is handled expertly and the shift is gradual and profound.
Mama could almost be considered the fifth film in Guillermo del Toro’s family-orientated fear franchise that began with The Devil’s Backbone and has progressed with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. All films involve children and play on the juvenile fears of our youth that become heightened in the dark, twisty worlds of del Toro’s imagination. Maternal themes resonate throughout, yet none more blatantly than in Mama: a story about a mother’s undying desire to protect her children. All of these tales are rooted in sadness and stem from a horrific tragedy, but there’s a sense of playfulness and hope that gives del Toro productions a sense of magic that – quite simply – can’t be beat.
Perhaps the sweetest moment is shared by the audience members who hang around after the end credits in the hope of an Easter Egg. There isn’t one, but there is a dedication: “To Our Mom”. If that doesn’t muster a hearty gut chuckle about the irony of a horror movie centred on an evil maternal spirit being dedicated to the filmmakers mothers, just go home.
[rating=4] and a half stars
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz