Executive Producer Guillermo del Toro once again explores the subject of maternal love in Mama, territory he has already visited in his films Orphanage and, to a lesser extent, Pan’s Labyrinth. Mama is based on a short film by siblings Andres (Andy) and Barbara Muschietti. This is Andy Muschietti’s first feature-length film as a director.
As the film opens, a tearful father drives his two young daughters, Victoria and Lilly, up a snowy mountain road. He’s distraught because he has just killed his wife. Jeffrey is driving too fast and the car slides over the side of the mountain, crashing into a tree. They make their way to a deserted cabin in the woods. As little Victoria looks out the window, her father puts a gun to the back of her head. But before he can pull the trigger, something black and unnatural grabs him from behind and snaps his neck. Next we see the girls sitting in front of a fire, and an apple rolls out of the darkness towards them.
The story continues five years later. Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas, has spent the inheritance he received from his brother to find his missing family. Miraculously, Victoria and Lilly are found alive in the same deserted cabin, though they’ve gone feral from their isolation. The cabin walls are covered in crayon drawings that tell their story, like prehistoric cave paintings. Victoria and Lilly are taken to a psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss, for observation. When the court case comes up to decide the girls’ custody, Uncle Lucas and his musician girlfriend Annabel fight for custody with the psychiatrist’s help, on the condition that he’s allowed to continue their treatment. Annabel, who’s a free spirit and was thrilled when her pregnancy test turned out negative, is wary of having the sisters live with them. Victoria warms to Lucas; but Lilly, who was barely two when they were abandoned, speaks few words and runs on all fours. When Lucas is pushed over a railing by an inhuman black hand, the responsibility of caring for the sisters suddenly falls upon the reluctant Annabel. As Victoria and Lilly become closer to Annabel, strange and sinister things start happening.
Mama is played by actor/movement artist Javier Botet [REC], whose unusual features and 7-foot height make him a natural for the role. The performances of Jessica Chastain, who plays Annabel, and the young actresses who play Victoria and Lilly are the highlight of the movie. Jessica Chastain shows us Annabel’s emotional journey from self-absorbed woman to protective surrogate mother, which is as drastic a change for her as the sisters’ own adjustment back to civilization.
The official Mama website says that “del Toro sums up on behalf of the filmmaking team what they’ve been sharing since the short Mamá was created several years ago: ‘The most unyielding force in the universe is maternal love, but when it goes wrong, it produces a very particular brand of compelling horror.’” Mama is most effective as a horror movie when we only see glimpses of Mama. The way she moves is particularly unnatural and frightening, and there are several good jump scares. Extensive use of CGI can be a distraction, though, and the level of fear diminishes at the end. All in all, Mama is a well-made movie with a fresh plot that’s certainly worth a trip to the theater. 3.5/5