MAMA is an imperfect horror film, but one that is highly effective in the moment. Stressing suspense over gore, it is blessed with an original story, elegant direction, a gifted cast, and a suitably unsettling subtext about the pleasures and perils of childhood. Specifically, the vulnerability of children negotiating an adult world that has fallen apart. Its a theme that Guillermo Del Toro, who presents MAMA, but does not direct it, has explored before in THE DEVILS BACKBONE and the sublime PANS LABYRINTH.
Where those films dealt with children in wartimes of decades ago, MAMA is set in an all too real present, where the recent economic downturn has wrought emotional havoc on a high-rolling financier (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). His response is to use a gun to solve his problems and to spare his loved ones any anguish. When the time comes to solve his two daughters problems, though, he hesitates in the seemingly deserted cabin to which he has brought them. Its just enough time for the cabins unseen occupant, described by the credulous three-year-old as a woman who doesnt touch the ground, to dispose of him and then to set about raising the two girls as best a phantom can.
When they are discovered five years later, thanks to the unending quest by their Uncle Lucas (also played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), they are feral, filthy, and crowned with wreaths of flowers. Despite this, after only 87 days of observation and treatment, the eight- and six-year-old girls are sent home with Lucas and his Goth-rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). That Annabel is a confirmed non-parent, and that they dont have an income to sustain two children obviously in need of prolonged and no doubt expensive care, is glossed over, with the psychiatrist involved (Daniel Kash) offering them a posh two-story home in the suburbs in exchange for access to study them. He also offers the watchwords that it wont be easy, and thats before anyone realizes that the phantom, dubbed, of course, Mama, by the girls, is not going to give up custody without a fight.
Despite the logic glitches, this is a fine example of the dont-look-behind-you school of horror filmmaking. A cherry rolling from the blackness of a dark corner, daring the audience to look further, something odd happening behind a door opened only a crack, and showing scenes of a child laughing with glee, but for reasons that are soon manifested as being desperately wrong. The mood is quiet, but tense, with the sort of creep-inducing sound design and evocative musical cues which bear the del Toro stamp.
The film is further elevated by relying on artistry, not tricks, which is not to say that the special effects arent good. They are, and they show an imaginative originality. But its the unexpected touches of sophistication that charm even as they terrify. Theres the dynamics of familiar relationships, making them as dangerous, in their own way, as the supernatural threat. A smart choice was in emphasizing not the strength of the two girls in having survived alone for so long, but rather their fragile innocence in accepting a ghosts nurturing, and their oddly understandable distress at discovering that this might not be the norm. Casting two blonde cherubs (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse), as the victims of loving parents (one living, one dead) gone wrong, was a very smart move, amping up as it does the audiences empathy level. It was also smart casting Chastain, who once again disappears into the role. She makes the cocky rocker with too much eye-makeup and too many tattoos more than a placeholder, giving her and the film a rich emotional core with which the audience can identify.
The dearth of the usual horror-movie clichés is refreshing, resulting in a film that has more than a few genuine surprises as well as an even more surprising tenderness when least expected and for the most unlikely reasons. MAMA has poetry to it, and horror, and a novel approach to a familiar story.