“What’s in the closet…?” That’s probably one question none of us truly want to know the answer to. Curiosity beckons with the door slightly ajar. Your instincts scream for you to stop, but you edge closer anyway, the need to prove to yourself that you are being childish nearly outweighing your fear. Do you open the door, or close it? Mama is one of those classic scary movies that trades gore for suspense and nudity for thrills. This may not satisfy the hardcore horror fans out there, but for those who enjoy a bit of subtlety and class with their chills, Mama‘s got your number.
Their mother murdered, two little girls are kidnapped by their deranged father. They end up wandering through the snowy woods and coming across a decrepit old house. Taking refuge inside its dark, rotten walls, the father makes the decision that none of them should survive, and he aims his gun. Something in the house disagrees with his decision. With her glasses broken, the older girl can only make out the vague shape of her savior.
Five years later, the girls are found alive by a search team hired by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) have become feral, though Victoria can remember civilized life better than Lily since she was a little older when the tragedy happened. After time with psychologists, they are released to live with their uncle and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), needing much as love, human interaction, and stability as they can get. Though they aren’t exactly ideal candidates as parents, they are determined to do everything in their power to help the girls. What they don’t realize is that Mama’s home and has plans of her own.
It’s entirely refreshing to see a scary movie that watches its language and leaves out unnecessary nudity. Sure, there is a place for those kind of horror flicks, but sometimes you just want to see a thriller that doesn’t rely on gore, torture, and soft porn to make you squirm. Mama rises to the top of the PG-13 crop, leaving vulgarity by the wayside to streamline its thrill-factor and depth through subtlety. Through images, you are able to read into histories and explanations without wasting precious movie-time with drawn out, blatant conversations. Instead of having the girls recall their five years of living in the woods, we see snippets of their time there through drawings made on the walls. We are shown insightful information about Mama through clever dream sequences, rather than a story-long investigation. Audiences are smarter than many filmmakers tend to believe, and it’s a relief not to be beaten over the head with foreshadowing and resolutions.
Mama is the directorial début of Andres Muschietti, though the film rides heavily on being presented by Guillermo del Toro. Muschietti is on the right track to being a great filmmaker, evident in his artistic camerawork and incredible ability to set a mood. He borrows from the Japanese horror style without taking direct pages from their formulation. It’s easy to see del Toro’s presence as Executive Producer, with elements that fans of his will immediately recognize, but they take on new faces through Muschietti’s direction.
It seems like Jessica Chastain has been in everything in the last few years, but there’s a reason for that: she’s good. Annabel is a little different and younger than anything I’ve seen Chastain tackle yet, and her portrayal is spot on. Really, everyone does a great job. Coster-Waldau is convincing playing both the girls’ father and uncle, and the girls are both believable and creepy. Muschietti takes all of these characters through development over the hour and forty minutes – even Mama – and all of the actors were up to the task.
The CG is top-notch, and lies somewhere in the realm between realism and fantasy. The more realistic it feels the better the scares are, but there is an element of fantasy that’s like a nightlight for your brain, subconsciously reminding you that this isn’t real. While Mama gets high marks for storytelling, CG, and pure scariness, it does suffer from a few small issues. The musical score is a little heavy-handed at times when the mood would benefit from silence. Also, there are a couple of loose ends and minor plotholes in the story which you don’t really notice until you are safely on your ride home. Though it’s fairly formulaic, Muschietti keeps the action fresh and throws you unexpected and welcomed curves in the road.
Besides its few shortcomings, Mama is scary, thrilling, and chilling to the bone. It checks all the boxes fans of fear require, and throws in some unexpected bonuses. For those reasons, Mama gets:
4 “Wild Children”out of 5