Last night I saw Andres Muschietti and Guillermo del Toro‘s masterful, sublimely crafted Mama at a Universal screening room. Totally over the moon, man. Levitational. I’m not a horror aficionado so I guess I’m off on my own orbit. But I know it when a director knows what he/she is doing, and Mama — is Scott Feinberg listening? — is the most engaging and exquisitely creepy horror film I’ve seen in ages.
Well, not “ages.” Five and a half years, to be precise. That’s when I saw Juan Antonio Bayona‘s The Orphanage, which Gillermo also produced. The Orphanage wasn’t aimed at genre fans either, and it played roughly the same “what’s around the corner?,” “what did we just see?,” “what’s that sound?” game. Aimed at somewhat-more-intelligent audiences, playing a less-is-more game. Mama is a bit more graphic and intense than The Orphanage, okay, but it’s definitely my idea of restrained. Certainly by today’s standards.
Does Mama contain familiar elements? Yeah. It’s a ghost story about a ferocious female banshee. Could some of these elements be called cliches? Yeah, I guess. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest when you’ve got a pair of exceptionally talented fellows behind the curtain. As I tried to tell Hoffman last night, it’s the singer not the song. Guys like Hoffman don’t want to know about appreciating standard stuff that feels fresh and alive and tingly. They just want what they want because they want it.
Mama is extra special because it’s about more than just fright zings. It’s also a grow-into-motherhood story for Jessica Chastain‘s Annabel, a gothy bass player with inky black fingernails who starts out with indifferent feelings about caring for Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who’ve been found feral in a forest cabin after surviving on their own for five years.
Victoria and Lilly are the nieces of Annabel’s boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a fellow musician whose dead brother, a scumbag financial trader of some kind, was their dad. The opening sequence, occurring about five years ago and showing what this wretched father did to his girls, is dynamic, super-powerful stuff.
Annabel is strictly hands-off in the beginning, as noted, but she edges into motherhood with a series of small halting steps, and by the end she’s fighting tooth and nail with the other “mother,” an extremely possessive figure who wants only to hold and nurture the girls into eternity. Victoria isn’t as much in Mama’s sway as Lilly, but both are on her team at the beginning and…no more exposition.
Mama is a light-touch horror pic. A concoction that sneaks in with hints and teasing cuts and, okay, an occasional shock cut or shock-music prompt, but mainly little cinematic games that turn you on if you’re hip or knowledgable enough. If you’re not hip enough you’ll just sit there like a popcorn-munching wildebeest and going “okay, okay but…c’mon, dude, where’s the really crazy shit? Where are the blood-soaked carpets?”
Is Mama an adult horror film in the vein of Robert Wise‘s The Haunting? Maybe that’s the wrong analogy as horror-film language has evolved so far beyond the tropes of 1961, but at times, yeah, it is. It goes for suggestion rather than shocks whenever possible. Is it a horror film for everyone who mostly hated Cabin In The Woods? Maybe. But if that film rang your geek bell and made you go “whoo-hoo!,” I don’t know what to say to you. I sure as hell don’t want to fucking know you. If I see you coming I’ll cross to the other side of the street.
All I know is that Mama is made for guys like myself. Guys who hate, hate, hate horror-geek slop. It’s not in the least bit gross or revolting, and it’s seriously, fundamentally scary. It trusts in your being able to recognize and revel in elegant filmmaking. It’s mainly about build-up and whispers and hints and intimations. It gets explicit toward the end, and this, truth be told, is the part I enjoyed the least…but it still delivers a first-rate finale because (and this is a big consideration) it doesn’t give the audience everything it wants. I’ll just leave it at that.
At the very least Mama is one hell of a calling card for first-time-director Muschietti as it feels like it was directed by a middle-aged pro. That’s a nod to Del Toro as he developed Mama, finessed it, worked on every aspect (it was shot in Toronto around the time of principal photography of Pacific Rim), “produced” and perhaps held Muschietti’s hand the way Howard Hawks held Christian Nyby‘s during the making of The Thing. Except Muschietti is no Nyby. He’s clearly “on the map” now, and will be around for a long time. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up Nyby to begin with. It’s just that Mama feels so smooth and commanding and sure of itself.
There’s a classic bit in Mama that belongs in the annals of high horror. The film is worth seeing for this alone. It involves an older sister stealing her younger sister’s blanket, and then a static hallway shot showing the two of them wrestling for control of the blanket in their bedroom but with only the younger sister visible. And then we see something unexpected. I laughed out loud. I mostly hate the geek realm, but for that moment I was in geek fucking heaven.