A few years ago, a cinephile friend sent me a link to a three-minute film called “Mamá,” calling it the scariest movie he’d ever seen. While Andrés Muschietti’s short isn’t that scary, at least not to viewers familiar with the loose-jointed specters of Japanese horror, it certainly delivers a jolt. Two little girls dash around a well-appointed home, panicked by the imminent arrival of their “mama.” They should be, since Mom, when she gets home, is not quite human. And she’s fast.
How? Why? What next? A three-minute film can leave all these questions unanswered. But now, with the support of executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Mama has become a Hollywood feature with a big-name star: current Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain. Writer-director Muschietti (who has anglicized his on-screen credit to “Andy”) has added a backstory to his three-minute nightmare, a task that often turns bloodcurdling concepts into inadvertent laughfests.
Aided by strong performances, he’s halfway succeeded in the expansion. Though some silliness pulls it down, Mama is reminiscent of both The Orphanage (another project del Toro shepherded) and The Ring, with strong emotional logic underpinning the scares. That’s pretty good for a January horror flick.
It helps that the backstory itself would make a chilling short, suggestive of a fairy tale. As snow pelts down, an unhinged businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), having shot his wife and associates, flees into the woods with his two young daughters. In an abandoned cabin, he prepares, weeping, for a double-murder-suicide. But the fierce spirit who lives there has other ideas.
Five years later, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), now about 8, and her younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), are discovered alive in the cabin, emaciated and scurrying like feral cats. (These shots, which blur the line between human and animal, are probably the most disturbing in the whole film.) Victoria, who remembers some English, tells a psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) they were fed and cared for by a presence called “Mama.”
Once minimally socialized, the girls are sent to live with their uncle (also played by Coster-Waldau), to the consternation of his boho girlfriend (Chastain), who isn’t eager for children. Especially not kids who sleep under their beds, eat moths and play games with a presence she can’t see — or fears to.
Maternal-instinct-versus-the-monster is such a horror cliché that it feels almost subversive to watch a movie where the protagonist is a reluctant “mom” (Chastain is introduced crowing over a negative pregnancy test) and the monster is maternal instinct incarnate. The filmmakers bust stereotypes on that score, and Chastain’s low-key performance makes her seem smart for a horror movie.
If only she weren’t written as a painfully clichéd rocker chick, and if only the girls’ psychiatrist and meddling aunt weren’t even more cardboard. Mama is the sort of film where crusty archivists pop up to offer convenient exposition, and obvious monster-fodder characters hike to remote cabins alone after dark. In short, it has its share of cheese.
Muschietti would have done better to keep his focus tightly on Chastain’s relationship with the two girls, since the young actresses never strike a false or “cute” note. Nélisse is eerie as the more feral of the two, and Charpentier shows us how Victoria is torn between the human world and the embrace of her loving but terrifying Mama.
Human brains may be programmed to respond with special trepidation to shapes that are almost human, like a living doll or a walking corpse (Freud called it the uncanny). Played by actor Javier Botet with digital enhancements, Mama pushes those primal buttons in a way that all-CGI creations rarely do. Derivative as the film is, impressionable youngsters who meet her are likely never to forget her.