First time director Andres Muschietti certainly knows his way around the haunted house movie. While Mama doesn’t quite live up to its potential, there’s plenty to admire…
Currently, we have a real appetite for supernatural thrillers. Paranormal Activity and its sequels show our continuing affection for “found-footage” and point-of-view when attached to the genre, while writer-director James Wan continuously wallows in traditional haunted house tropes with Insidious, its sequel and The Conjuring. It’s a curious thing how mainstream horror movies so perfectly encapsulate the cliché yet we forgive their artificial jump-out-of-your-seat scares for more run-ins with evil spirits banging doors, turning picture frames upside down and general domestic nuisance. Husbands and wives are torn apart, children are thrown about, and beautiful turn-of-the century homes – the mark of middle class bliss – become the middle class nightmare.
It is a shame then that writer-director Andrés Muschietti’s Mama threatens to weave its own unique spin on proceedings before the plot gets out of control. Suddenly, special effects front and centre and a devotion to tying up loose ends diminishes the sense of intrigue that permeates the narrative in the story’s early stages. Most unfortunately, Mama actually delivers on its promise only to harm its own good work with an ending that doesn’t work on multiple levels. Yet, getting there is undoubtedly fun, and at times spine-tingling in its suspense, with much of the film’s success lying at the shoulders of Jessica Chastain.
Muschietti, who got the opportunity to make Mama thanks to producer Guillermo del Toro’s love of his short horror film of which the feature-length adaptation is based, should be praised for his astute construction of suspense, utilising classic techniques for both camera and sound. His assured control of pace, mise-en-scene and sound design would not suggest this is his debut feature. Where he falls down is in the inevitable challenge of taking a three-minute short film to a grander stage. He avoids over-complicating the plot but in trying to find conclusions to the mystery, something his enigmatic short film didn’t do and is the better for it, he limits the film’s ability to unease.
But he’s aided by the brilliant Jessica Chastain, who benefits firstly from a character who isn’t cut from the cloth of cliché. We’re used to seeing doting mothers and wives, their psychological profile taking a hammering thanks to the supernatural presence in their home. Chastain’s Annabel is a bass player in a rock band, she’s not interested in children, she’s not married to her partner Lucas, and she appears ambivalent to the question of leaving her boyfriend when it is posed to her by a friend. She’s not your traditional maternal figure making her character and her growing relationship with the children more interesting.
We are introduced to her as she rejoices the result of a pregnancy test; it’s negative. She lives with Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in a small, messy apartment, whose twin brother disappeared five years previously after killing his wife and kidnapping his own children. Lucas has spent the proceeding years searching for his nieces in the vague hope of finding the bodies and solving the mystery of what happened to them. Miraculously, they are eventually found alive in a secluded wood cabin. The little girls, Victoria and Lilly, who are now eight and six-years-old, are taken into care. Psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) eventually allows Lucas and Annabel to look after the girls on the proviso that he is allowed access in order to continue his investigation. They agree, partly because Lucas feels a kinship with the girls, as well as guilt over his brother’s actions, and partly because they are promised a large, new home sanctioned by Dr. Dreyfuss, which pleases Annabel.
The girls are in a feral state. The youngest knows no words of English, while her sister struggles to come to terms with traditional life once again. There is also the pervading sense that these children are hiding something. Indeed, we are privy to the entity who first saves the girls from their murderous father, and then protects and nurtures them while they are away from the world. Now their lives are under the watchful gaze of their uncle and his partner but their supernatural protector is not happy about losing its family. When Lucas is attacked by the entity and put into a coma, Annabel must raise the children alone and begins to realise it is not just her and the little girls in their new home. There is a dark presence, and it wants the children for itself.
Annabel’s carefree attitude to motherhood brings with it a fascinating dynamic between her and the children. Instead of a devotion to their well-being, she simply plays the waiting game, giving them time to rehabilitate until Lucas is out of hospital. When bad things happen she is more concerned with her own sanity than that of the children. But their relationship develops and a mutual respect grows between her and the eldest child Victoria. Thus, Annabel begins to become increasingly frustrated by the unanswered questions behind the children’s five years away from civilisation, while her evolving maternal instincts bubble to the surface as she becomes less distant and more protective. Chastain does a terrific job of giving us a character who doesn’t feel like a composite of other haunted house movie-mothers. She’s strong-willed and a bit unpredictable but underneath her heavy black eye-liner and tattoos is a delicate heart that draws you into her progressively destructive and life-threatening situation. Chastain provides real dramatic gravitas to a genre that is often, and unfairly, dismissed as cinema’s unworthy underbelly.
There are a lot of things to like about Mama, which makes it frustrating that things unravel by the end. Muschietti is a more than competent director with a real flair for building suspense, while his debut is conceptually innovative amongst its structurally conventional narrative. The special effects, when used sparingly, are superb, and the entity that becomes known as “Mama” is a frightening proposition built on creative CGI, beautiful photographic flourishes and confident use of the sound space. It’s obvious what struck famed filmmaker del Toro about Muschietti’s potential as a director. Despite the film’s genuine scares diminishing towards the finale, Mama will still entice and enthral lovers of the haunted house. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s convincing performance and the technical delights of Muschietti’s skilled control of his camera should be enough to intrigue audiences less interested about bumps in the night.