Director: Andres Muschietti.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Synopsis: Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) suddenly find themselves caring for his two nieces, who were found living in a cabin in the woods after a five-year disappearance. Practically feral, the girls rely on an imaginary carer they call Mama.
‘Mama, I love you. Mama, I care,’ crooned the Spice Girls. If only we could say the same about the latest horror from the house of Del Toro (mainly so we could get on the posters). Alas, the best we can sing is ‘Mama, I thought you were alright. Mama, I wish you hadn’t gone all CG at the end.’ The rhyming scheme is awkward.
The feature debut of writer/director Andres Muschietti is something of a mixed bag, which is at points inventive, clichéd, truly frightening, unintentionally funny, intentionally funny and quite annoying. The first two acts have a lot going for them, mainly as it does what all good monster movies should do by keeping the monster from you. The less we see of Mama, the more we’re frightened of her. Muschietti does a terrific job of keeping her on the peripheries, so we only get glimpses and mere suggestions of this malevolent spectre with the scariest hair since Sadako first crawled out of a television. She hangs over us (sometimes literally) like the sword of Damocles and what little we see of her is chilling. A scene with flash photography in the cabin, with its creative and unsettling use of sound and light will scare the bejinkles out of you.
However, as the film reaches its crescendo, we see more and more of Mama and she gets less and less frightening. The creature is a computer-generated disappointment instead of what could have been one of the most ghoulish creations in recent horror cinema. Were she played by a physical actor, the danger would have seemed more tangible and, with the right make-up and editing, the possibilities were great, particularly if she were played by a contortionist who could do all the freaky bendy limb stuff. Instead, the antagonist looks like a fourteen year-old goth’s attempts at photoshopping a ghost into one of the screamer vids you get on YouTube. It’s a dang shame.
But it’s not all lost opportunities as the film benefits greatly from some superb performances. Jessica Chastain’s put upon Annabel is a compelling and grounded character whose panic over unexpected motherhood rivals her fear of a resident ghost. The girls are also a joy to watch and stay firmly on the right side of ‘creepy kid in horror film.’ Megan Charpentier as Victoria is more Danny Lloyd from THE SHINING than Haley Joel Osment, while Isabelle Nelisse looks like a baby Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lilly, which is very sweet. The more convincing the kids are, the more you care about what happens to them, which you do until the CG monster ruins the verisimilitude in the final act.
Muschietti is at his best with the basics. There is a static shot that shows the interior of the girls’ bedroom, while Lilly plays and Annabel does some house keeping along the hallway. It’s clever, funny, unexpected and a little creepy, with his use of corridors, door frames and depth of field echoing Kubrick’s THE SHINING and making the domestic horrifying. Those who have seen his original three-minute short on which the film is based will recognise a tracking shot following the girls out of their room, down the stairs and the subsequent chase scene. Here, and throughout the more unnerving moments in the film, the use of sound is key. Mama emits a strange and disturbing noise, somewhere between a choke and a hiss, which conjures up images in your mind of what she could be like – all of which are far worse than what we eventually see.
When push comes to shove, MAMA is pretty good. It’s not the first decent horror movie to be let down by its beastly reveal or a disappointing ending and it won’t be the last. It does contain some real scares and, from the spine-tingling opening title sequence, is practically dripping with malice for most of the running time. Muschietti shows a lot of promise, gets two great performances from the children and has a lot to thank Jessica Chastain for.
Guillermo Del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this one and it owes a lot to its Spanish horror roots, all of which is in its favour. It’s just a shame Mama herself gets less frightening the more you see of her. Plus the crummy denouement would have been easier to swallow had the Spice Girls played over the end credits.