They say all priorities change when you have a kid. While I'm dangerously close to 30, I find that notion completely horrifying — while there's an enticing egomaniacal element at play when you create something living or otherwise, a huge part of me sincerely hopes I never find out how fulfilling that particular act of creation really is. And, if you knew how I spent my time on Thursday, Janurary 17, 2013, you'd probably agree with me. So, during Andrew Muschietti's Mama, I was delighted that, when we first meet protagonist Annabel (Jessica Chastain), she's cheering over a "not pregnant" indicator on her tester. Add to that denial of impending adulthood the fact that she doesn't have a single piece of clothing that doesn't have a cool drawing on it or could be deemed "appropriate" for any serious situation and we have a protagonist I can strongly identify with while having HEARTS 4 EYES.
She's also the perfect protagonist for the rest of the movie to happen to. Her boyfriend Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau*) has been restlessly searching for his brother and two nieces ever since they mysteriously disappeared into the woods five years ago. They've finally found the two girls, but they're weird little feral girls who are in deep need of psychiatric examination and a ton of care. To cut the ensuing custody battle short, Luke agrees to move the kids to a suburban house that's rent-free in exchange for regular psychiatric visits. Annabel is reluctant but supportive, but insists that the kids don't call her "mama." She's unaware, but she's not the "Mama" they're referring to — it's whatever kept them alive in the woods that's followed them to society…
Adapted from Muschietti's short film, produced by Guillermo Del Toro and co-written by Luther creator Neil Cross (!), Mama offers a by-the-numbers structure that we see in all of these scary house movies. Scary stuff happens, someone does some research into a nearby insane asylum or hospital where somebody got mistreated, and then our heroes try to right the wrong. It was even in the previous Del Toro scary house movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. However, like that film, it's the details that make Mama feel special.
Part of that special feeling comes from the kids themselves, as the film spends time developing them, their relationships with one another and their relationships with the eponymous Mama. The older one, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), is old enough to remember life before the woods, so she adjusts relatively well. Meanwhile, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) is completely unsocialized, getting into things like a cat and sleeping under the bed every night, offering some comic relief in between the spooky bits. Both are great, believable kids' performances that are even better because they're strange without venturing into the "creepy kid" territory that so many crappy horror flicks have stumbled into.
Eventually, Luke takes a spooky tumble down the stairs, leaving the rest of the movie for Chastain to carry. It's a solid performance as she spends the film evolving from completely carefree to acting responsible, reminiscent of the way we saw her evolve from an easily shaken neophyte to a stone-cold professional in Zero Dark Thirty. But what counts is the way the film doesn't completely throw her personality out during this process. It's not the kind of film where her disregard for motherhood is the problem that gets fixed by the end of the movie, but rather one where an unlikely protagonist rises to the occasion.
My resistance to adulthood notwithstanding, Mama succeeds as a horror film, too, as one might hope from something that Del Toro is involved with. There are more real scares involving spooky beings than cheap fake-out scares and the design for Mama herself is a winner — not only is it an ugly and legitimately scary twisting of human features, but also memorable enough that you can draw a rough approximation after the movie is over. Moreover, Mama herself is a fascinating character in her own right; she's a frightening antagonist, but the film takes time to develop her perspective enough to inject a palpable humanity. Like I said, this is a Guillermo production.
As you might expect from a ghost story, Mama's predictable structure leads to the inevitable "right the wrong that caused this supernatural stuff to begin with" plan, but this time it leads to a refreshing finale. Without giving it away, Mama boasts a weird, ballsy conclusion that makes perfect sense for these characters while eschewing a tidy, feel-good ending or dropping one of those bullshit "Or was it!?" twist endings before slamming to credits.
While in the grand scheme of things it will likely go down as an underrated horror entry and a weaker part of Del Toro's production filmography, Mama shows that you can take well-worn ground and freshen it up with unconventional characters and effective ghostly horror.
* Waldau is best known for playing living evil Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones. I've seen every episode of that show thus far and didn't realize this was the same actor. I think that speaks to his quality as a performer, as the difference in performances is shocking.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.