Mama’s producer Guillermo del Toro understands the nature of fear as few others do. Its purity. Its simplicity. The way it cuts through all the bullshit and grabs you by the fundaments. He once said, “fear is simply the presence of something that shouldn’t be there or the absence of something that should be there.” Everything else is details. Director Andres Muschietti takes that adage to heart with this, his feature film debut. He can’t quite find the brilliance of his producer, but he catches glimpses of it at times, and that propels Mama far past what we might otherwise expect. Hit the jump for my review of the film on Blu-ray.
Like del Toro’s work, Mama evinces a proper fascination with the dark heart of fairy tales. In this case, it entails a pair of little girls lost in the woods, abandoned by a suicidal father and who should by all accounts be dead. Yet they survive there for years, thanks to the presence of something that shouldn’t be there. When their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) finally locates them, he’s committed to helping them overcome their trauma… a decision that doesn’t sit well with his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Naturally, when the girls move in, that aforementioned something moves with them, and Annabel suddenly finds herself in a pitched battle for the girls’ souls.
Mama falls back on stock scares quite a bit over the course of its running time, but it skates by on pure technique. Muschetti doesn’t feel the need to spill buckets of blood across the screen, relying instead on inference and suggestion to get his spooky points across. He pays similar attention to the meatier ideas beneath the scares, touching on familial bonds and the ways that love and pain can merge into one. His resident boogeyman isn’t evil, merely lost in her own tragedy and incapable of understanding any other way. Chastain’s Annabel defies the expected conventions as well. We don’t see characters like her in many horror movies – a reluctant savior rather than a virginal victim – which may explain what attracted such a high-end actress to the role.
In fact, so much of Mama is so good that its inevitable shortcomings stand out all the more. This could have been a masterpiece on par with del Toro’s best. Instead, Muschietti makes the occasional rookie mistake that mars his otherwise brilliant canvas. The exposition is a little too much at times, especially when it turns into unnecessary plot twists that serve only to pad the running time. The addition of a psychiatrist who sticks his nose in where it doesn’t belong does nothing for the drama, and acts only as an awkward way to deliver background details. Knee-jerk shock tactics creep in as well, effective in their own way, but ultimately detracting from the film’s more elegant central purpose. They’re comparatively minor flaws, but they keep Mama in the realm of mere good filmmaking instead of elevating it to a modern classic.
In this genre, however, that’s a deal we can live with. Muschietti shows a keen grasp on the potential of horror and delivers a sharp little genre exercise that already stands as one of the high points of the year. Not bad considering its ignominious January release date. Del Toro may hold the edge, but his protégé is definitely going places, and with a rookie outing this strong, his next film will definitely be worth keeping an eye on. Mama announces his arrival with unusual flourish, the all-too-rare scary movie that really knows what it’s doing.
The Blu-ray doesn’t offer a whole lot, but what it has is worth paying attention to. The high point is Muschietti’s original 2008 short on which the feature film is based. It’s scary as fuck: guaranteed to produce its share of sleepless nights. The disc also includes a short featurette on the making of the film, an even shorter piece on the visual effects, a collection of deleted scenes and a very good audio commentary form Muschietti and his sister/producer Barbara. Sound and visual quality are sterling, which helps make up for the comparatively modest bonus features.