I have an irrational fear of things crawling at me. Not just insects, but anything. A few years ago a roommate of mine exploited this and crawled at me full speed in the dark. I did this weird faint/trip thing and wound up breaking my right big toenail. It took about six months for the nail to turn completely black and fall off. That’s what I associate with shit crawling at me.
Lucky for me so much crawling goes down in Mama, the Guillermo Del Toro produced flick written and directed by newcomer Andrés Muschietti. Del Toro backed the film after he saw Muschietti’s short of the same name. That’s just one of the many reasons Del Toro is such a valuable individual in the film industry today: he uses his pull in the business to help hungry artists get a shot. That’s important nowadays when most studios don’t have the financial balls to take any chances.
It’s easy to see why the genre maven championed Mama. The film contains several of Del Toro’s recurring elements – most notably children in peril. Del Toro loves that shit. The children this time around are Lilly (younger) and Victoria (older) – two sisters who’ve spent five years alone in a cabin in the middle of the Virginia woods. They were brought there by their father, who fled with them after killing their mother. The girls are discovered by trackers who’ve been hired by their uncle Luke (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Both girls hiss and crawl around awfully fast (way too fast for my taste). Lilly, who was barely a toddler when abandoned, keeps crying out for “Mama,” while Victoria hardly remembers how to speak.
After a shockingly short stint in rehab and a brief legal tussle, the girls are sent to live with Luke and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Chastain is a beast lately. For Mama she’s got her hair dyed black and cut short, with heavy mascara at all times. She looks like every Hot Topic patron’s wet dream. Luke does all the detective work and pushes for custody of the girls, while Annabel begrudgingly supports this major life change.
Once the girls move in though, Annabel becomes the protagonist and we follow her through her transformation from shitty mom to ride or die matriarch. When we first meet Annabel, she’s breathing a sigh of relief over a negative pregnancy test. Throughout the film she expresses her distaste for the girls – frequently referring to the situation as Luke’s “problem.” She’s more resentful than selfish. She had to leave her band and rock and roll lifestyle behind for Luke and the two little feral pip-squeaks.
The movie is about Annabel’s shaky maternal instincts duking it out with the titular apparition – who has some strong maternal faculties of her own. The beauty of monsters in Del Toro films is that they’re actual characters, not just boogie men used for jump scares (although there are plenty of musical-queued ones here). As the girls attempt to assimilate to suburban life, there’s a great side-plot going on in which the who and what Mama is gets revealed. You really feel sympathy for the floating, spidery ghoul too.
It’s a genuinely creepy film with lingering shadows and some really clever devices that make you laugh before you get creeped out. Muschietti’s definitely a competent director. He’s created an emotionally rich, accomplished film similar in vibe to Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. It’s an ambitious film that feels old-fashioned, but doesn’t remain satisfied with modern horror conventions and crutches. Like Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Mama‘s ending is darkly bittersweet with only a hint of a silver lining. It’s the best god damn horror movie I’ve seen in theaters in a while.- Patrick Cooper