A girl looks out the window and casually remarks ‘Daddy, there is a woman standing outside, and her feet aren’t touching the ground’. The snarky grin on your face begins to crumble.
Produced by the Sensei of creepy art direction Guillermo Del Toro, Mama is a chef-de-oeuvre of modern horror up until three fourths of its way. It doesn’t even matter if you find the final act a tad undercooked because by then you’ll already have seen one of the best horror movies made since 2007’s El Orfanato.
Mama is exquisitely directed by Andres Muschietti who expands upon his 2008 short film of the same name that he co-directed with his sister. Five minutes in, you begin to realize that Mama isn’t typical Hollywood smut horror but one that challenges the clichés of the genre and the stock set of characters that come attached to it. Muschietti relinquishes the comfort of tried and tested horror tropes and instead serves a whole new set of subtly terrifying set pieces. He also brings in an all-female cast, which, going against the genre, is actually not offensive to women.
The plot is as simple as it is unsettling – four years after the mysterious death of their father, two girls are found in an abandoned cabin in the woods in feral condition. Their uncle decides to take care of them by bringing them home, but a shadowy feminine figure accompanies them to their new house. There are no mirror shots, nor are there any hackneyed false scares, the filmmakers pile on layer upon layer of hair raising dread as the tension becomes almost unbearable for your urinary duct. The mood and atmosphere is quite reminiscent of Orfanato, the best scene of the film is one that doesn’t feature the shadowy Mama on camera but shows the kids playing with ‘someone’ in their bedroom. It’s subtle yet powerful enough to decrease the temperature of your nether regions. There is also a nice surprise for those who have seen the short film beforehand as Muschietti makes sure the fans part the theater satisfied and the newcomers part with their gonads.
Jessica Chastain, fresh off the Oscar eyeing turn in Zero Dark Thirty is a sort of a big deal here, she plays a character that was probably never done in Hollywood horror – a punk rock guitarist aunt who is neither sexualized typical of the genre nor is a weak or delicate scream queen. She does scream a couple of times when the title character shows up in her face but so would you. Even the kids are quite unlike the ones found in other thrillers and the actors (8-year-old Megan Charpentier and 4-year-old Isabelle Nelisse) are incredible. Muschuetti superbly argues the burden of choice that the characters make – the uncle is hospitalized and the reluctant aunt is left to deal with the kids, and the children who must choose between a woman who can give them love and a great life and a woman who can give them love even in death.
There are a few contrivances and inconsistencies in the plot, and it’s a bit annoying to see the film harking back to Hollywood snare of illogical characters. At one point the uncle pulls out some strange photograph and wanders away into the jungle for no reason whatsoever and you’re left scratching your head. The biggest gaffe arrives in the CGI-laced finale when we see ‘too much’ of Mama that makes the novelty and terror fade away. The final scene, however, is unexpectedly moving and provocative, one that signals the arrival of a major talent behind the camera.
(First published in MiD Day)