Presented by the prolific Guillermo del Toro, Mama is a story of loss and repression in the vein of classic Spanish horror films, but lacks the power of previous works from one of the world’s leading horror film countries.
Originally a short that impressed producer del Toro so much that he helped turn it into a feature-length film, Mama tells the story of two little girls left alone in the woods following the death of their parents. Years later, the now feral sisters are found by their father’s brother, played by Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and sent to live with him and his girlfriend Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain. However, events take a horrific turn as it becomes clear that the girls may not have been alone in the woods.
Spanish horror films have a long tradition of taking the form of ghost stories, with films such as The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphange showing just how lasting and powerful such a narrative can be. Unfortunately, Mama lacks the emotional weight and subtle horror of these works, instead opting for a more American style fright fest.
As the girls Victoria and Lily move in with their uncle and his partner, a malevolent spirit follows them, one which is seen little but often throughout the film. It is not a spoiler to say that “Mama” is real, as it is only the adult characters that do not see her directly. As the narrative unfolds, Annabel is left alone with the girls and must contend with their ghostly protector, who provided the girls with protection and nourishment during their time in the woods. However, instead of being subtley present, the horror of Mama’s presence is so obviously constructed by quick jumps and sharp imagery that there is little to be surprised by. The haunted house narrative is conventional, containing nothing new. If anything, Mama resembles the annoying predictability of Paranormal Activity than the lasting impression of films like The Orphanage, which is similar in tone but so much more effective.
This is not to say however that the film is without merit. Jessica Chastain’s performance as the flighty but protective Annabel is convincing, and sets up the key conflict between her and Mama, both vying to lay claim to the two girls. The other characters are conventional but portrayed well, despite their varying subplots being poorly handled and dispatched just as ineffectually. Original director of the short film Andrés Muschietti returns and does well to maintain an eerie atmosphere throughout, except at points when Mama is seen, which predictably take the form of quick flashes and creepy movements (its good to see the crab walk still has a place in modern horror film). The best moment comes when the original short film is recreated within the film, however it is simply not as creepy thanks to the input of more obvious special effects. Del Toro’s tradition of using physical effects is still present throughout and are far more effective despite being used too sparingly.
Mama is a polished but disappointing addition to Spain’s horror film output on the world stage. The realist horror sensibilities of past works is lost in place of the creation of a conventional ghost story aesthetic which, whilst successful in gaining a few scares, is ultimately unmemorable. It’s a sad time when during a screening, more people laugh than scream due to the obvious construction of well worn horror conventions.