Another week, another horror film. Sometimes, watching the genre’s cinematic offerings, I wonder if there is any point. Perhaps everything that can be done already has been. Perhaps there is no space left for anything but the same old rehashings.
And then something like Mama comes along, and it all seems fresh and edgy again.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro (yes, that del Toro), Mama revolves around two little girls who survive, apparently alone, in the wild for five years after the deaths of their parents. When they are eventually found, feral and filthy, they are adopted by their uncle and his girlfriend. Except, whatever helped them survive — christened “Mama” by the girls, has apparently come back with them. And Mama is a jealous guardian…
The headline billing here is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones fame) as the girls’ uncle — but really this show belongs to Jessica Chastain. As Annabel, who from the off has no desire to be a mother, most of the story is built on her relationship with the girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) — and she gives a believable and immersive performance throughout. Coster-Waldau, whilst not quite on the bit-part scale of Sean Bean in Silent Hill, doesn’t exactly steal the spotlight.
But this wasn’t just a one-person success, and whilst Chastain gave a commendable performance the success of Mama was not hers alone, but a collegiate effort. The visual designers, of the set and particularly of Mama herself, out did themselves. Conjuring distorted bestial images accented through the movements of the children, it creates a deeply disturbing and creepy atmosphere running deeper than simple “jump-moment” horror.
But as with del Toro’s previous offering, Pan’s Labyrinth, this isn’t just horror. The story and the visuals both inject a sense of ethereal, otherworldly beauty. And coupled with a number of genuinely sweet moments, centred on the children and around mother-daughter relationships, it has a strange duality of horror and sympathy.
If you think that horror is all trite or clichéd, this is the film you should watch. Mama weaves a compelling, yet fundamentally terrifying story, with all the beauty of a time-honoured theme, bringing a welcome shot of originality to what could have been another dull repetition.