There’s a strong possibility that Jessica Chastain could be atop the box office charts this MLK-weekend, and it might not be the movie she won a Golden Globe for last week (and is a lock for an Oscar win next month, IMHO). She’s in the memorable “Zero Dark Thirty,” of course, but she’s also in the low-budget supernatural thriller “Mama.” a Guillermo Del Toro promoted and executive produced Canada-Spain collaboration (yes, it’s in English) filmed on locations in Barcelona and Quebec (in late 2011), but set somewhere in Virginia. Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker, does not direct here, instead offering Spanish native Andy Muschietti his feature debut. Muschietti, a commercial director, actually made, with his sister Barbara Muschietti, a 3-minute short back in 2006 called “Mamá,” (which you can watch at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRqS6pBC42w), a one-scene, 3-character forerunner to their current exercise. The siblings receive credit as the feature’s story authors and wrote the original screenplay that was ultimately polished up by British-born author/screenwriter Neil Cross (“Luther”). According to Del Toro, the new film used the short as atmosphere (i.e., the matriarch’s horrifying demeanor) on which to expand its characters.
Del Toro, whose work includes the eerily enchanting “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the numerous “Hellboy” movies, has inspired many of today younger horror directors with his distinctive creepy, earthy style. “Mama” has Del Toro’s fingerprints—I assume a pile of cherry pits and a ton of large moths are his idea—smeared over its simple, spooky story, and then shovels on an ooze factor, as in “don’t get too close to that black ooze creeping out of the wall, because it will eventually scare (or worse) you.” Combining elements of several horror sub-genres (cabin in the woods, poltergeists, ghosts, don’t go in the closet), the film opens with the offscreen death of the mother of two small girls, who are kidnapped by their distraught father, a reckless driver (with a N1DAD vanity plate) and eventually lost in a haunted shed in a remote woods. Five years pass, during which the father’s brother, Lucas (Danish actor Nikolaj “Game of Thrones” Coster-Waldau), and his semi-goth girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain) have been searching for the young girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sibling Lily (Isabelle Nélisse). Chastain, almost unrecognizable in a black, short-haired wig, dark mascara, and a wide variety of tattoos, adds a lightly butch behavior and plays bass guitar in a rock band. Annabel moves beyond her disbeliefs, and Chastain shows that even a lower-key role can be imbued with a realistic sense of fear and determination.
Although a psychologist (Daniel Kash) notices the feral children’s obsession with an “imaginary” guardian, as well as their unusual, crab/spider-like stride, a custody court rules that they can stay with Lucas and Annabel, despite the protestations of an obviously bitchy aunt (Jane Moffat). Ugly characters like hers are usually fodder for a really bad experience later in the film. One condition of the family reunion is that the newly minted clan must be housed in a case study environment that the doctor requires them keep secret. This didn’t make much sense to me, but it’s a minor bump in a dependable script that offers the requisite nervous-laughter-because-I’m-scared moments of unease as the eponymous character literally comes out of the woodwork and eventually reveals herself. Mama’s spectral appearance, spindly and gaunt as if a Holocaust victim, has her own backstory that becomes the doctor’s, then Annabel’s, crusade to solve the apparition’s riddle.
Technically the film has a gray drabness in its color-desaturated world, the kind you often get when you don 3-D glasses. In “Mama”‘s case, the appearance works in its 2-D realm. Antonio Riestra’s cinematography has a nice steady flow, and the unusual sound mixing of wall noise and ominous tremblings grow as the film moves toward its climax as Lucas and Anabel battle the lunatic spirit. There’s a lot of imagination in the film’s scare tactics that remind me of the disturbing charm of Val Lewton movies of old.