Guillermo Del Toro takes another new director under his wing, and produces the feature length version of director Andres Muschetti’s own 2008 short film about two children raised in the woods by a supernatural presence the children call ‘Mama’ after their parents are killed. When the children are found they’re put in the care of their uncle (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), but soon find that it’s not just the children that have come out of the woods.
These early scenes are the best for ramping up the dread, with the children in an almost feral state, walking on all fours and speaking only in single syllables if at all, only really interacting with the unseen Mama for the first part of the film. Alongside the standard haunted house clichés (flickering lights, figures seen in reflections) there are a few genuinely creepy but understated scenes, such as a nice long shot involving a game of tug and war. While the story offers nothing new the atmosphere sucks you in; a treacle thick sense of unease and foreboding pervades the entire film with the requisite scares punctuating the murk. These scares and happily not all cheap jump ones, although naturally there are a few well placed instances, but rather slow burn affairs that linger in the mind rather than give you a momentary jolt. The presence of Mama is felt in every scene.
The actors here elevate the film above countless other haunted house stories, giving the film a classier feel than most in the genre. The character arc for Chastain’s Annabel, (almost unrecognisable from her earlier turn in Zero Dark Thirty) from indifferent carer to protective mother figure, which while obvious as to where it’s eventually headed, is portrayed convincingly enough that it never comes across as false. Coster-Waldau spends most of the film confined to a hospital bed so as to keep Annabel alone with the children but does well with limited material. The real stars of the film however are Isballe Nélisse and especially Megan Charpentier as the two children, Lilly and Victoria, who create a believable and crucially never obvious ‘creepy child vibe’ leaving their eyes and animalistic movements to do most of the work.
It’s a shame then that the titular Mama isn’t as good or as interesting an antagonist once she’s revealed in full, both physically and when we’re told her history. The first half of the film, with her as an unseen and unknown menace is far more effective than seeing her in her full gothic ‘Ghostbusters reject’ form and finding out the reason why she’s so protective of the two sisters. And once that has been revealed, the film devolves into the same horror film you’ve seen dozens of times before, with no real surprises or deviation from the standard horror template. It’s a little disappointing considering the good work that has gone before but there are only so many leisurely paced scenes you can have without a big Hollywood friendly showdown or resolution barging its way in. Also, the motivations of the Mama character don’t really make a lot of sense within the framework the film has presented and as such it makes the sudden shift in her intentions, no doubt to shoehorn in an exciting rather than fully satisfying climax, a little jarring.
And in the film’s final moments, I can understand what the intention was; presumably to craft an ending that is beautifully sad, or perhaps sadly beautiful, but coupled with Mama’s fuzzy motivations it comes off as a poor attempt to emulate the wonderfully bittersweet ending of a previous Guillermo Del Toro produced film, The Orphanage.
Perfectly serviceable as an out and out horror but the film strives to be something more and ends up failing, but only just.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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