There are quite a few positive and fresh elements to the movie Mama; something that is hard to accomplish in the horror movie genre. A malignant supernatural force with a parental instinct that is stronger than that of the living characters, at least in the beginning, is not a common theme. The movie is visually impressive and well-acted. What’s unfortunate is that the execution of the story is flawed. Mama is also full of standard scary movie clichés and some plot contradictions and holes that hinder the film’s potential to be a truly great ghost story.
In the beginning, events that take place are so timely it can’t help but resonate with viewers. A man, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) shoots two of his co-workers after a devastating market crash. Jeffrey then drives to his beautiful home in an upper-class neighborhood and kills his wife. Instead of continuing his rampage by immediately murdering his two young daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), he puts them in the car and drives deep into a mountainous, wooded area.
The girls’ ages aren’t revealed, but Victoria is old enough to be attending school, probably kindergarten, while Lilly is still too young to even speak. As Jeffrey listens to the atrocities he’s committed being reported on the radio, Victoria asks him where they are going to which Jeffrey responds that he doesn’t know. It appears as if the emotions that drove him to such desperate acts have calmed. Now he’s dealing with the ramifications of what he’s done and trying to determine if he can find a way to avoid the inevitable conclusion.
The road is icy and covered in snow, and Jeffrey loses control for one second, putting the car into a tailspin until it careens off the edge of a cliff. Amazingly, nobody is seriously injured and he leads his daughters on foot, deeper into the woods. They come across a small deserted cabin. It is here that Jeffrey finally decides to murder his children.
He removes Victoria’s broken glasses, further impairing her vision. Is this some last demented attempt at parenting, so Victoria is shielded somewhat from what is about to befall her? He tells her to turn and look out the window, there is a deer. Whatever instinct that motivates most parents to protect their children is either broken, or Jeffrey never had it at all. He just can’t stomach looking at her face as he ends her life; watching the purity and trust drain from her eyes. But he doesn’t get the chance to perform the penultimate act of cowardice because there is a force in that house that is compelled to save Victoria and Lilly.
Five years later, Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (also played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), has exhausted all of his financial resources searching those woods for his brother and nieces. Finally, two locals come across the cabin and the girls who are alive, but their mood is dark, scary and dangerous like wild animals. They are moved into an institution that deals with troubled/abused children and put under the care of Dr. Dreyfuss, who explains that Victoria has retained more human abilities and characteristics than Lilly.
After a custody battle with the girls’ aunt on their mother’s side, Victoria and Lilly go to live with Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Annabel is a rock-star wannabe whose looks appear to pay homage to the fierce, female protagonist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The couple is forced to move out of their hipster apartment and into a suburban home used for case studies, and Annabel, in spite of her lack of maternal instinct, quits her band so she can support Lucas in caring for the girls. While Annabel has no emotional ties to Victoria and Lilly Mama (Javier Botet) does, and she has not relinquished control of her girls.
To truly be a fan of the supernatural/horror genre of film a viewer has to undergo a suspension of disbelief. You can’t watch A Nightmare on Elm Streetand spend the whole movie pointing out the implausibility of the plots. So when it is revealed that Mama is the ghost of a woman who lived in the 19th century and she raised Victoria and Lilly during the five years they were missing, you just accept it.
Once Dr. Dreyfuss realizes that Mama is real and not a fictitious component of what he believed to be Victoria’s Dissociative Personality Disorder, he begins to piece together her past. This is when Mama begins to fall apart. The idea of a ghost with an agenda, for lack of a better word is the basis for The Ring, The Grudge and countless others. “A ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself, time and time again until it rights the wrong that was done,” a woman tells Dr. Dreyfuss as she hands him a box that contains Mama’s wrong. The same sentiment may be expressed about scary movies; they repeat themselves time and time again.
While Mama is a benevolent spirit when it comes to Lilly and Victoria, she is a malevolent and even deadly when she comes into contact with anyone else. Her unseen presence comes with all of the usual bells and whistles: whispering, a guttural growling, bumps and thumps, eerie humming and creaking. Mama does have one unique signature, though: moths. These creatures are nocturnal but they are present even in daylight throughout the movie. Moths are symbolic of numerous things: old age, childhood-lost, fragility and death. Lilly is even shown eating one, indicating that the creatures were a source of protein that kept the girls alive.
Is it too much to view Mama as a commentary on parenting? Parents leave impressions, some lasting, and some fleeting on their children. In the movie, Mama leaves bruises. Mama can’t let the girls go; she is consumed by jealousy and fear of abandonment. Victoria shows an innate motherly instinct towards her sister and develops one for Annabel, despite not being raised by a “traditional” mother.
Mama becomes predictable, but at its climax, the film’s creators try to unravel the audience’s expectations that they’ve spent the latter half of the movie constructing. The result is confusing and disappointing. It’s almost as if Mama collapses in on itself leaving nothing behind but a big, black hole.
Included in the special features on the blu-ray is commentary with the director/co-writer of the film Andy Muschietti and the producer/co-writer Barbara Muschietti along with some deleted scenes. Interestingly, Mama was originally a short about two girls’ love/fear relationship with the ghost of a mother. There’s a brief introduction of the short by Guillermo del Toro, who is the executive producer and was obviously instrumental in getting the concept developed into a feature film. You can watch it either with or without Guillermo del Toro’s commentary.
There’s a featurette titled The Birth of ‘Mama’ which offers some great insight into the thought process behind the story. Guillermo del Toro explains the choice of the monster, “A mother is a great idea as a monster because everybody has known a possessive mother. Whether it is your own mother or a friend’s mother.” It also includes interviews with all of the primary actors and the creative team.
Real cinephiles will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the special effects. However, I feel that lifting that veil takes some of the mystery and enjoyment out of a film.