Posted January 19, 2013 by in


Total Score

3.5/ 5

Quick Stats

Genre: horror
Director: Andrés Muschietti
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Actors: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, and Daniel Kash
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: 1/18/2013
Studio: Toma 78, De Milo

What We Liked:

atmosphere and storytelling

What We Disliked:

lapses in internal logic and genre expecations
What We Thought

Mama is the scariest, most emotionally involving horror film since The Sixth Sense.

by Daniel Hodgson
Full Article
The Sixth Sense embedded itself in popular culture not only because of a plot twist, or that it was a chilling horror film, but because of its powerful emotional resonance.  It was a story about a doctor’s compassion for his patient, a husband’s devotion to his wife, and a mother’s love for her son.  Over ten years later, from horror-meister Guillermo Del Toro and newcomer Andrés Muschietti comes Mama, a film as moving and as chilling as one of the genre’s most iconic films.
     The story:  five years ago, four-year-old Victoria and her sister Lilly disappeared in the woods.  The children are finally discovered, feral and malnourished, living alone in a decrepit cabin.  The court awards custody of the children to their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
     The family moves in to a new house, owned by the institute that saw to the children’s physical rehabilitation, with Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) overseeing their ongoing recovery.  One night, Annabel sees a figure in the hallway.  Lucas searches the house, and gets pushed down the stairs.  Lucas ends up in a coma, and Annabel must now look after the children on her own.  Night after night, Annabel overhears the children talking with someone, or something—a ghost Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly call “Mama.”
     I especially appreciated the character of Annabel.  Had she been born to be a mother, Mama would have been just another supernatural thriller, lacking human drama.  But Annabel is not a natural mother, and tells the children not to call her that.  Annabel, a guitarist, sacrificed her rock band to become a parent out of love for her boyfriend Lucas, and is now stuck with two children that are not her own—one of whom, Lilly, is still feral.  There is a tender scene where Annabel discovers that Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), under Mama’s influence, slept outside all night in the cold.  She embraces the child to share her body warmth, but Lilly violently resists.  Annabel takes Lilly’s hand and breathes her warm breath on it, to which Lilly responds—the two at last begin to bond as mother and daughter, and Annabel discovers her maternal instincts.
     There’s little blood, gore, or violence, but Mama instead relies on atmosphere and the occasional jump scare.  These generally don’t work on me, but there was an attempt at startling the audience late in the film that had me jumping out of my seat.  D.P. Antonio Riestra creates a lighting design that’s unnerving, favoring flickering light sources that hint at a lurking threat.  Once revealed, “Mama” is a scary movie monster…terrifying, really.  The language in Mama is surprisingly strong for a PG-13 film, so take this into account (and just how frightening the film is) when planning for youngsters.  In the U.K., Mama receives a “15” rating, which seems far more sensible.
     While the film works well on an emotional level, it breaks down a bit as you look at it rationally.  The ghost tries to murder uncle Lucas, so why does it then allow Annabel to live?  And why does it allow the girls to leave the cabin in the first place when their rescuers took them from her?  Furthermore, there is a scene where Mama travels instantly from the family’s house to the cabin in woods where it originally resided.  The film provides an explanation for how the ghost manages this, but it’s difficult to accept given the conventions of ghost stories.  Traditionally, ghosts and demons by their very nature are attached to a place, like the haunted house of Poltergeist, to an object, like the Dybbuk box in The Possession, or to a person, as in the The Exorcist or Paranormal Activity.  The ghost in Mama is attached to the children, so it’s puzzling when it appears far away from them.
     Even so, it pays off ten-fold emotionally.  The climax of the film is as gripping as they come, and resolves itself the only way it could have.  More than anything, Mama is a film that understands and comments on how storytelling works.

About the Author

Daniel Hodgson

Daniel has a degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes about himself in the third-person, because that's the fashion.


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