by Dan Fields
First published January 16, 2013 by the California Literary Review
Mama Don’t Allow
For any director hoping to bring visions of terror and wonder to the screen, the patronage of Guillermo del Toro is a good place to start. Several years ago, director Andres Muschietti made a tiny and very creepy short film called Mamá about two little girls fleeing from something whose appearance is a crude mockery of what children should call by that name. Now, with del Toro as producer, he tackles the subject again at thirty times the scale. Mama is a movie of weight and a certain dark beauty. It is unlikely to change history, and has a handful of minor problems, but it deserves more than a January release, the exile by which many unwatchable horror movies go to die quietly. Mama is not only watchable, but engaging and at times even powerful.
Victoria and Lily are sisters who, when scarcely more than toddlers, become abruptly orphaned in the woods one day. The family crisis that got them there is rather graceless and contrived, but basically the standard parental element failed them in a big way. Alone and vulnerable, they come into the care of an indistinct but monstrous entity which they learn to call “Mama.” Over several years, the girls regress to a feral state in the idyllic squalor of the forest, little suspecting that civilization wants them back.
Their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game Of Thrones), having bankrolled a long search for their whereabouts or remains, is rewarded at last with the homecoming of the little darlings, who now snarl, bite, and go on all fours. He takes custody of them, much to the quiet dismay of his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a woman whose fierce independence can be judged, in terms of movie shorthand, by her profusion of tattoos and her furious bass guitar skills. She’s got a plum gig with a generic “angry chick” rock band, but grudgingly puts it aside for the sake of the family unit. Chastain plays this role gamely and brings plenty of heart to it, but given her recent high-profile successes, particularly Zero Dark Thirty, how curious to see her issued such an on-the-nose stock character. She is less prepared for motherhood than a monster. GET IT?
No sooner are the enfants sauvages settled and on the road to rehabilitation than they begin receiving visits from their mysterious and jealous “Mama.” Their therapist (Daniel Kash) dismisses this figure as a coping technique developed for their survival in the wild. Perhaps the movie would have been stronger for exploring that ambiguity, but by this point we have seen too much not to understand the situation. The point of the story is how Lucas and Annabel will come to face facts and deal with them.
While the exposition and adult characterizations lack finesse, Victoria and Lily are vivid roles that demonstrate the good things that can happen when competent directors work with competent child actors. With or without the supernatural trappings, there is a beautiful story built into their relationship. Victoria remembers enough of her early childhood, before the woods, that she takes to language and re-civilization easily. Lily, on the other hand, spent her most crucial years as a wild child and resists all attempts to settle her down. She continues scrabbling around on all fours and sleeping on the floor. She barely speaks, and constantly gnaws on both food and whatever debris she finds lying around. There is little to no indication that she can or will let go of her imprint on Mama and the existence she represents. The young girl playing Lily is named Isabelle Nélisse, and what a marvelously fun, hammy role this must have been for her.
With such a promising idea, it is a shame that Mama relies so heavily on cheap shock scares. After a while, they acquire a rhythm that could be timed with a watch. The litany of old favorites includes Dark Shape Runs By A Window, Lights Go Off And Back On To Reveal Something Right Next To You, and Moment Of Silence And Heightened Awareness Followed By Jarring Orchestral Noise. The latter, which has surged in popularity since Robert Zemeckis made What Lies Beneath, really ought to be the subject of a ten-year ban from films, just to clear the pipes. Mama is not a movie that need justify or apologize for its frightening ideas. That Muschietti decided in favor of all that tired tinsel is a mystery and a pity.
How amazing it is to consider that there are children, just now discovering scary entertainment, for whom the wispy-haired, omni-jointed, digitally textured female wraith is as iconic a movie monster as the vampire and the killer shark. Western filmmakers have so assumed this figure as to drown out the memory of their derivation from a brief boom in Japanese horror retreads like The Ring and The Grudge, scarcely a decade ago. This is merely an observation, and not particularly a criticism of Mama, who may not be innovative but still evokes a potent case of creeps. That said, monsters like this work best in the dark. One of the movie’s chief faults lies in waving its creature too liberally before our eyes. The most unsettling (not merely shocking) moments occur when a furtive glance by Lily or Victoria indicates that Mama is lurking, but the camera declines to show us exactly where.
Although superficially courting the favor of those wanting an attention-deficit Hollywood scare flick, this film has more classic ideas on its mind. Part of the reason for its noncommittal tone is that deep down, this is not the horror film it pretends to be. There are strong hints of fantasy and legend, especially La Llorona of Latin America, peeking through the seams. It is a fairy tale, deftly inverted so that the adults are the ones having the nightmare, and the children enjoy the power of being monstrous. Slowly, working through a somber fable of what it truly means to be a mother, Annabel uncovers the means to restore order or die trying. While it may not have the elegance or gravity of Pan’s Labyrinth, Mama also has the courage to demand sacrifice in the face of terror and menace.
Ultimately, Mama gets more things right than it gets wrong. Despite its false steps and style decisions that could have used more work, the movie delivers a sufficiency of fright and a surprising measure of tenderness. It echoes the attractive qualities of several recent horror movies, without the callous nastiness of Sinister or the strained stuffiness of The Woman In Black. For Guillermo del Toro, this seems less like an overwrought pet project than the 2010 remake of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, which drowned for naught in lazy plotting and boring characterizations. Here, del Toro and Muschietti have unpacked the extremely compact premise of a 3-minute film into a feature presentation that, though far from airtight, seldom goes for more than a minute without something interesting to look at or consider. Mama reaches high and stumbles frequently, but never enough to lose its satisfying momentum.