By Shane M. Dallmann
We’ve become rather desensitized to such credits as “Wes Craven Presents” (to give but one example) over the years, but so far, when Guillermo del Toro “presents” something, he MEANS it. He may not have either written or directed MAMA, but you can rest assured that he hand-picked it and saw it through because it genuinely complements his vision of true-life horrors as seen (not necessarily imagined) through the eyes of children. Here, first-time feature director Andres Muschietti expands his own short film (which, naturally, is what caught del Toro’s eye in the first place).
A devastating financial disaster causes a once wealthy nabob to “snap” and murder his wife (off-screen) before absconding with his two little girls (aged three and one). His frantic flight finally lands the trio in an isolated cabin in a remote, snow-blanketed forest, and there he (most disturbingly and convincingly) resolves to finish what he started. But he doesn’t. “Daddy, there’s a woman outside. She’s not touching the floor.”
Years pass, the snow disappears, and the two little girls are found, having managed to survive in an animalistic state (the older of the two has retained sufficient vocabulary to keep a tenuous grasp on humanity). While cooler heads would normally send the troubled girls to live with their great-aunt, case worker Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) wants to keep them around to study, so he assigns them to the care of their uncle (Nikolas Coster-Waldau also played their despairing father) and his “rocker” girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who makes it very clear from the beginning that she is NOT ready to become a mother. And as this couple is in no way prepared to raise a family, they even get a luxurious “case study” house in which to live.
Guess who’s going to have to take the lion’s share of the responsibility?
The question, of course, is this: who is the mysterious “Mama” that supposedly cared for the girls during their forest ordeal? Kash is convinced that the resourceful, communicative Victoria (Megan Carpentierre) did the work herself with the help of her “imaginary friend.” But we know better. And we also know, from the moment that the girls start indulging in some playful roughhousing while “don’t call me Mama” Annabel sees to the laundry, that we’re in the presence of one terrific director: Muschietti handles everything from subtle disturbances to shrieking shocks throughout, while the gradual unraveling of the story behind “Mama” echoes the stories that del Toro previously spearheaded when he “presented” THE ORPHANAGE and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.
Quite simply, the movie makes the audience scream. Then they laugh nervously. Then they start whispering about what just happened. Then they start shushing each other. Then they scream again. But the nervous energy never flags for a minute. Meanwhile, the quality of the acting (including that of Charpentier and little Isabelle Nelisse, who are never cloying or obnoxious as the sisters) is on a level with Muschietti’s technical skills… and while the potential for a sappy, sentimental finale rears its ugly head… nah, I won’t say it.
You don’t need 3D, graphic gore or even an “R” rating to make a horror film that WORKS. 2013 is now officially off to an excellent start after tripping at the opening gate.