There really haven’t been too many films featuring creepy and potentially deadly children in quite some time, or at least none that have been either creative or well made. In the wake of the rise of J-Horror around the turn of the century, creepy kids had become almost a form of horror movie shorthand on the level that science fiction films use time travel to explain away logical plot holes. Kids were simply used ad nauseum in scary movies because no one ever wants to think that a kid could ever bring harm to an adult, and along the way they became so clichéd that the trope only works for the most undiscerning audiences.
With that in mind it would be entirely unfair to dismiss the Guillermo del Toro produced thriller Mama, which rightfully uses just slightly left of centre and almost entirely feral children to tell a good old fashioned ghost story with some welcome modern twists. It’s not very deep thematically or even narratively, nor does there need to be because there’s definitely some interesting subtext being tossed around thanks to an incredibly game cast (including Golden Globe winner, Academy Award nominee, and star of the number one film at the box office, Jessica Chastain) and some clever genre writing.
Following the death of their somewhat evil father, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) are raised by a spirit at a remote cabin the far off woods. After learning that the kids are no longer missing/presumed dead, their uncle (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) takes them into his custody with hopes of giving them proper lives despite the fact that they like to jump on dressers, never speak, and have a tendency to eat each other’s hair. Compounding his stress to some degree is his child fearing, punk rocker partner (Chastain, with a giant squid tattoo, a penchant for Misfits shirts, and jet black hair) who would sooner never have a child in her life and be perfectly happy about it.
Naturally the titular spirit comes to call and reclaim the children as her own per a predestined backstory involving an injustice that she’s still sore about, but the things that happen around the admittedly well crafted scares are more interesting to think about in a lot of ways. Adapting their own Spanish short film to feature length, co-writer Barbara Muschietti and director Andres Muschetti (with an assist from Luther series creator Neil Cross) make a unique and timely parable within the confines of a fairly straight genre production. It makes economic and sociological points that shine through nicely amid the jump scares and special effects ghosts.
Opening with an economic metaphor that’s hard to academically ignore, Mama raises the question about the children forced into the middle of the worldwide economic crisis and what their survival really means. It spoils a lot to go into great detail the connection that’s made in this respect during the film’s lengthy prologue, but it becomes reinforced when the children are shown to be confused, aimless, and fearful beings rather than when the audience knew they were like at the start. In a way, it also makes an interesting point in a similar fashion that an entire generation could suffer a similar fate. It’s an intriguing touch that probably the most eagle eyed of viewers would pick up on, but it’s an automatic tip off that the film to follow won’t simple be baseless eye candy.
Offering even more support is the always excellent and now finally getting recognized for it Chastain, playing and creating a character that offers the layers of emotion and thought that the story needs to go beyond what scary movie audiences expect. As an unwanting motherly type, Chastain plays a character symbolic of the recent push among couples to simply forget about procreating all together, and she does it in a respectful manner. She isn’t a shrill, off-putting child hater or even someone who doesn’t know what she wants. Even when she watches over the kids it’s not necessarily that she doesn’t want the responsibility of having to care for children that aren’t hers, but that the idea never appealed to her. Once things start going awry and supernatural (and they do in quite a hurry), Chastain plays her role as someone with a strong sense of right and wrong and not necessarily as someone warming to her own motherly instincts. Much like the kids under her charge, she’s always fearful of the uncertain, and a character that could have easily become a selfish dunce in the hand of a lesser actor or filmmaker becomes a thoroughly interesting protagonist that’s easy to root for even if you might not necessarily agree with her on an ideological level.
Maybe I’m looking too deeply into a film that’s designed simply to scare and creep out the audience it’s aimed it, but there’s quite a bit more to this effort than meets the eye. Maybe I talk about it in that fashion because the actual horror elements of the film are pretty standard and about in line with what I was expecting. What was most surprising about Mama was how it was able to put a little bit extra on top to warrant a much stronger recommendation than the somewhat weak one it would have gotten without the extra effort. It’s a classical ghost story told in a classical sense with modern fears and neuroses at the heart of it, and that last part makes it an accomplishment when so many other films in its genre have been so wildly out of touch.