The best thing about Guillermo del Toro – and the films he produces – is that he tries to push genres in ways that so many filmmakers avoid in favor of lazy old tropes. Ghost stories like Devil’s Backbone, superhero films like Blade II, and fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth weave together classical ideas with dark moments in national histories, the vivid agonies of childhood, and complex back stories of rich characters. Mama, a del Toro production directed by first-timer Andres Muschietti, veers back and forth between embracing that originality and falling back into an all-too-standard ghost story.
Annabel (a punked-out Jessica Chastain) wants nothing less than to be a mom. When her boyfriend Lucas’ missing nieces are found – feral and without their father – she has to take on a reluctant mother role, raising two kids in a strange new home that has more than its fair share of creaks and moving shadows. The children, lost for years in the woods, have lost their social abilities, resorting to playing with an imaginary figure called “Mama.” Slowly (and particularly painfully for Lucas), though, we realize Mama is far from a psychological delusion.
And how many times have we heard that story? “Creepy kids’ imaginary playmate is something far more sinister”? And at times, Mama can tediously go through the motions – way too many scenes of kids talking to blank walls and smiling devilishly at Annabel, mysterious shadows slinking toward Annabel just before she wakes up in a cold sweat. Plenty of the standards we’ve time and time again in the post-Sixth Sense PG-13 ghost movie rush. If those sequences were all the movie was made of, it would barely be worth a rental.
Fortunately – be it del Toro’s stamp or Muschietti’s innovations – the film has more spark than that. Like any creature feature, Mama lives on its monstrous design, and the twisted, freakish, moaning figure that is Mama herself is a spirit you’ll remember. Admittedly, a lot of criticism has been thrown at the film for showing a bit too much of Mama, but it’s a typical del Toro move – at some point, we’re supposed to see Mama as more than a monster, a full-fledged character herself. Kudos to his filmmaking ethos, but it definitely undercuts Mama’s ability to scare later in the film. Muschetti makes up for it at times with more ambitious imagery; his haunting breakdowns of cinematic imagery occasionally work to inject the film with its own style. And it needs it. I’m all for an old-fashioned haunted house flick, but sometimes a classic-style ghost story can be too classical for its own good.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).