Guillermo del Toro, the reigning godfather of motion-picture horror, is the modern-day Val Lewton, the legendary producer of atmospheric chillers like The Curse of the Cat People. If you’re a movie fan, you know that horror doesn’t get much better than this, and when it comes to contemporary offerings it rarely gets more enjoyable than Mama. Instead of delivering buckets of guts and gore, this ghost story offers a strong sense of time and place, along with the kind of niceties that don’t often figure in horror flicks, notably pictorial beauty, an atmosphere throbbing with dread and actors so good that you don’t want anyone to take an axe to them.
The story opens with a camera sliding up to a car parked at an angle, with the driver’s door open and the radio blaring in front of a suburban house. Catastrophic economic news has led to a panic, with one executive, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), running amok. Since the fetching Coster-Waldau plays the blond bad boy Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, you may expect the worst. The director Andy Muschietti whittles the story down to its freaky primal nub. One minute, Jeffrey is holding a gun and contemplating the unthinkable with his two young daughters; the next, the girls are five years older and singing a lullaby straight out of Hellraiser.
The Muschiettis open the movie with “once upon a time,” tipping that Mama is a modern fairy tale of sorts. After the girls went missing with their father, their uncle, Lucas (also Coster-Waldau), initiated a search. Two of his trackers find them in a derelict mid-century-modern home deep in the woods. (Dad remains MIA.) It’s a setting that suggests an abandoned Don Draper weekend getaway, save for the two critters scuttling across the floors and atop a fridge, where one hovers over the other like a bird with a chick. Filthy, with matted hair and skinny spider legs, these are the little lost girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), and her younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle NÚlisse), wild children seemingly headed toward an unhappily ever after.
Lucas takes custody of Victoria and Lilly, to the sullen displeasure of his live-in girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Together they move into a house provided by the hospital where the girls are treated. However appealing its cast, the movie sputters in this stretch, partly because it takes time to recover from the shock of Chastain’s amusingly apt Goth drag. More problematic are the lapses in logic. The filmmakers easily sweep the girls out of their woodland digs, but they stumble with some of the more ordinary scenes.
Del Toro understands that nothing says terror like a home that’s become a rattling cage. And so, once Lucas has been awkwardly dispatched, leaving Annabel home alone with the girls, Muschietti gets down to shivery business.
Where this reluctant, plausibly uneasy family is headed is obvious, but Muschietti throws out enough diversions and visual wit to keep you distracted from the predictable turns. In Mama horror is intimate, domestic and overtly feminised, so much so that its monster — Javier Botet — opens up darkly oozing, Cronenbergian holes in the wall, a striking visual suggesting that the house itself has given birth to the demon. Here the law of the father meets the wounded wrath of the mother.
- Director: Andy Muschietti
- Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Sabelle Nelisse, Javier Botet
- Running time: 109 minutes
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