Review: Mama (2013)

Posted on January 21, 2013 by Ben


Review by Dustin Hall

Following in the footsteps of Pan’s Labyrinth, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, and the Orphanage, Guillermo Del Toro brings his distinct horror styling to Mama, another film in his ‘dark fairy tale’ genre. Though written and directed by AndrĂ©s Muschietti, it still bears many of Guillermo’s tropes, passed down from his producer’s chair. If there’s a child/children being haunted by a supernatural force in a vaguely fantasy setting, you can almost be sure its a Del Toro film.

Mama’s story circles around the custody battle for two little girls, Victoria and Lily. As wee babes, their father went nuts, killed their mom and kidnapped them into the woods. In an abandoned cabin, the trio is found by a strange spectral creature, who kills Dad and then proceeds to feed the girls a steady diet of cherries, rats and moths.

We jump ahead five years later, when the girls are eventually found, still living feral in the woods, shadows of their former selves. They are taken back to civilization, and immediately made the center of a custody battle between their maternal aunt and their father’s twin brother, along with his punk-rock, child-hating, laissez-faire girlfriend. Eventually, the girls’ doctor grants custody of the girls to the brother and the girlfriend, on the grounds that he gets to use the girls to make a case study of them and write a book about their recovery.

Unfortunately for the young couple, they only move from one custody battle to another, as the girls bring with them the ghostly creature from the woods, whom they call Mama; she’s a creature that teleports around, guarding the girls jealously. The ghost is harmless enough at first, feeding the girls weird forest treats and playing with them late at night, but as the girls begin to become attached to their new family and used to society, Mama begins to lash out at the surrogates, lethally stalking anyone who comes between her and the girls.

Much of the dynamic of Mama is the search for understanding between kid-hating girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), and the two little girls. Their adoptive and caring uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, A Game of Thrones), is taken out of the picture extremely early thanks to a chance encounter with Mama. Left alone, Annabelle has to find some way to discover her deeply repressed maternal instincts, calm the wild children, and solve the mystery of Mama.

Shoe-horned into the side of all of this is a sub-plot about the girls’ psychiatrist who is also investigating Mama, believing at first that Mama is actually the split personality of older sister Victoria. Of course, since the audience knows from the beginning that Mama is real, none of this is really pertinent, or goes anywhere, aside from supplying Annabelle with all the research she needs about Mama, without having to strain the credibility of the character’s intelligence by having her investigate on her own. Also, there’s the jealous aunt we’re supposed to hate, even though she clearly would have been a more prepared adoptive guardian, whose plot goes nowhere. She’s kind of instrumental in getting the girls, physically, to the finale, but since Mama can fly and teleport and can carry the girls around with her, it all seems unnecessary.

Trite sub-plots aside, Mama is a pretty solid creep-fest. The story quickly establishes itself, and the imagery of the wild little girls, and the ghostly, floating Mama, will give a lot of viewers the chills. Throughout the whole, the tension builds, little by little, and makes for a pretty classic ghost story. Custody, reluctant surrogacy, and weird kids are nothing new to horror by any means, but the way Mama uses those themes makes the characters mesh in a way that is believable, and sympathetic. The well-meaning but fragile family unit in peril is a particular focus of Del Toro’s horror ventures, and is key in making everything work. If you can sympathize with the family, you’ll fear for them. If you can’t get into them, then the suspense just isn’t there.

For most, the ending will be the make-or-break moment of the film. Despite the sub-plots, a couple of weird VFX choices, and one pretty major plot contrivance, Mama holds the audience all the way to the climax, keeping them jumping, straining, and nervously laughing all the way through. It was eerie and fun. But the finale does show Mama in her full form a lot, which does take some of her mysterious terror away, and the final moments are bitter-sweet, not the clean, happy ending that many audiences would want. For myself, I was glad for the somber end, as for me, it’s not horror if it ends well, but it does seem to have a polarizing effect on those who watch.

Despite some differences in tone and style, the themes and many story elements of Mama make it similar to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and it will appeal to a similar audience. For those who like a slow burning ghost story, or perhaps a family drama mixed with their horror, it’s worth checking out. But for the gore-crowd, you got nada, this one’s not for you.

Mama is on currently on general theatrical release in the US. It opens in UK cinemas on 22nd February, and in most of Europe in the following months.