Let me just go ahead and get this out of the way right now: I love Guillermo del Toro. I will watch pretty much anything that has his name attached to it. His style of story-telling and his direction methods make for beautiful and compelling films. I feel weird even just calling them films, to be honest. They’re so much more than that. They’re art, plain and simple. He is an artist- and a brilliant one at that.
Although I’m a fan of his more well-known and critically acclaimed hits, “Blade 2”, the “Hellboy” movies, and “Pan’s Labyrinth”- I’d say one of my all-time favorites has got to be “The Orphange” (in which he was executive producer). I remember being so thoroughly creeped out and moved by the end of it that I could barely hold a conversation with my friends after we’d watched it. I had gotten so wrapped up in the story that when it was over, I was spent.
I’ve been anticipating “Mama” for a while now. Another executive producing endeavor from del Toro, the previews for it made it look like a visually stunning and scary supernatural thriller. Led by Hollywood’s current favorite leading lady, Jessica Chastain, sporting a rather unusual haircut, it already seemed more promising than my last trip to the cinema had been.
WARNING: THERE ARE EXTENSIVE SPOILERS AFTER THE CUT. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
Five years ago, toddler sisters Victoria and Lilly are abducted by their father after he completes a shooting spree that claims the lives of their mother whom he had been estranged from, his boss, and a co-worker. On the run with no real plan in mind other than escaping, the girls’ father sets off with them huddled in the back seat of their family car as he speeds down icy and winding roads. Momentarily getting distracted by Victoria, the eldest of the two girls, crying and pleading for him to slow down from the back seat, their father loses control of the car, sending it over the edge of a steep looking cliff on the side of the road.
Miraculously, all three survive, although they are now in the woods, in the cold, and very much being searched for by concerned law enforcement who are desperately trying to find the children and bring them home safely. It is during this frantic search that we are briefly introduced to the girls’ uncle Lucas, who arrives at his sister-in-law’s home and subsequent crime scene after receiving a call from the police.
But back to the kids- The trio stumble upon an abandoned cabin in the forest, and with no other viable options available, their father chooses to take them inside where he lights a fire and attempts to formulate a plan. Instead, the realization of what he’s done hits him, and he proceeds to reach his breaking point, sobbing in the hallway of the cabin while we can clearly hear Victoria remark from an adjacent room that there is a woman outside the cabin and that she is “floating”. This of course would be the first red flag that shit is about to go awry very, very quickly.
Although his full plan is never fully revealed (was he going to kill himself, too? Was he going to just kill the girls and flee on his own?), their father joins Victoria by the window, giving her a quick, sad speech about how much he loves her, before he makes her turn around to face away from him again- and raises his gun to the back of her head. Within moments, he is pulled away from the girl by a dark, and very creepy apparition, kicking and screaming for only a few seconds before said apparition presumably kills him.
When we next see the girls, it is dark out, and they are huddled together by the fire their father had lit. Their attention turns to a cherry that rolls across the floor to them from the darkness, and then to the direction in which it came from. They smile, seemingly at ease the only way small children can be at the prospect of making a new friend. They’ve met “Mama”.
Fast forward five years to present day. Lucas, the girls’ uncle, is a struggling artist who has never given up the search for his brother and his nieces, sending scouting parties out on a regular basis to search marked grids on a map of the area he keeps in his small apartment. While he’s on the phone with one of the scouting parties, who are getting ready to embark on a thorough search of one of the grids in the forest, we meet Lucas’ girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), a tattooed, bassist in a punk rock band with possibly the most unflattering haircut I’ve ever seen on an otherwise beautiful woman. Judging from Annabel’s ecstatic reaction at a pregnancy test coming back negative, it’s obvious she’s not exactly “kid friendly”, either.
The scouting party in the woods turns up Lucas’ brother’s car, lodged in a tree following the roll-over off the cliff, and not much further from where it came to rest, the two men discover the same cabin the girls and their father had sought refuge in five years earlier. While they check it out, finding children’s drawings on the wall, a large pile of cherry pits, and other evidence that the place was recently inhabited at one point- two little figures emerge in the background, scurrying around like animals who are pissed that there are strangers trespassing in their home. Victoria and Lilly are alive, and their time in the woods all alone has all but turned them into feral cats.
The girls are taken into state custody and put under the watchful eye of Dr. Dreyfuss who conducts numerous hypnotherapy sessions and examinations as he tries to help the girls transition from life in the wild to being normal, healthy, domesticated children again. He comes to find during their time together that they have invented an invisible friend, a protector, that they refer to as “Mama” (spoiler alert: she’s not invisible. Holy shit. I repeat- SHE’S NOT INVISIBLE), and during one telling hypnotherapy session with Victoria, the girl, who has retained most of her language skills, reveals that “Mama” was an escaped mental hospital patient who’s baby had been taken from her. After managing to steal her baby back, “Mama” fled into the woods, and finding herself cornered, leapt to her death, with baby in tow, off of a cliff onto rocks and into frigid water. This story, coming from a little girl who would never know of such things otherwise, is especially chilling to listen to.
It’s determined that the girls face a better chance of fully recovering if they live in a stable home with a loving and patient family figure. Lucas rises to the task, despite Annabel being more than reluctant to take on the responsibility of taking care of two children who are not exactly housebroken. The couple are met with resistance by Jean, the aunt of Lucas’ slain sister-in-law, who also wants custody of the girls and who for whatever reason has a strong dislike for Lucas and Annabel despite the tragedy that unfolded at the beginning of the movie being neither one of their faults. I think Jean was just thrown in there to create a character for the audience to dislike, and Jane Moffat did an excellent job with the role because I hated Jean every time she was on screen.
Lucas, Annabel, and the girls move into a more spacious home provided by the state under the condition that Dr. Dreyfuss be allowed continued access to monitor their progress and continue his hypnotherapy sessions. As expected, things get off to a shaky start. The girls continue to talk to “Mama” throughout the night, Annabel is no good with children, weird and creepy things start happening around the house, more details of “Mama” are revealed the more the girls talk to Dr. Dreyfuss, prompting him to do some extensive research into their town’s archives and records from the 1800s from a nearby mental hospital, and it becomes clear that something has followed Victoria and Lilly into their new home.
At one point, Lucas is seriously injured in the house and is consequently hospitalized, leaving Annabel alone in the home with the girls. Despite a series of bizarre dreams and even more bizarre behavior from Lilly, who is more guarded than Victoria, the three eventually begin to slowly but surely bond, prompting Victoria to tearfully explain that “Mama” gets extremely jealous and doesn’t want Annabel to get hurt because of it. Still, Annabel continues to do what she can for the girls, tapping in on maternal instincts neither she or any of us watching the movie knew she had- even eventually getting through to Lilly and sharing a tender moment with her, further inciting “Mama’s” rage and causing all of the women in the theater to let out a collective “awwww!”
When the film wasn’t focused on Annabel or the girls and the increasingly violent and terrifying things happening in the house, it focused on Lucas’ recovery, and a bizarre vision he had of his brother imploring him to save the girls (which is really the only thing that struck me as inconsistent and unnecessary in the film- because it made him seem like he cared about what happened to his daughters when he’d had a gun pointed at one of them at the beginning of the movie), and Dr. Dreyfuss and his search for answers. As it turns out, Victoria’s retelling of ‘Mama’s” escape from the mental hospital and suicide was accurate. He even gets as far as locating the unclaimed remains of “Mama’s” baby. From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory why things are happening the way they are. “Mama’ lost her own child. She cared for Victoria and Lilly, and the more the girls bond with Annabel and Lucas, the more she’s at risk of losing them, too.
There is also a minor sub-plot where Jean is attempting to document what a terrible person/mother Annabel supposedly is in an attempt to have DSS take the girls away, but since Jean sucked so bad, I tried not to focus too much on her.
Annabel takes over the task of continuing Dr. Dreyfuss’ research from the house after he goes missing and neither she nor anyone in his office are able to reach him (there’s a reason for it). Reading his notes, watching his recorded sessions with Victoria and Lilly, and looking through the collected archives and records, she realizes what’s happening in their home, but before any action can be taken, Victoria makes the mistake of giving Annabel a sincere hug and telling her that she loves her before bedtime, which sends “Mama” into a royally pissed off frenzy that results in Annabel getting hurt and the girls being taken in a jealous rage.
Knowing what “Mama” is looking for, and having a good idea of where to find the girls, Annabel grabs the box that contains “Mama’s” baby’s remains, finds Lucas, and together the two set off to the cabin, and then the cliff that overlooks the cabin- which turns out to be the same cliff “Mama” had leapt from when she died, so for anyone wondering about the significance of the cabin, there you go.
And since I’ve already pretty much written the entire movie, I may as well write how it ends, too.
The girls are at the top of the cliff with “Mama”, who has apparently decided that if she can’t have the girls in life, she’ll take them with her in death by leading them off the cliff the same way she and her baby died. Annabel and Lucas arrive just in time, and a struggle ensues. Naturally, as it probably would go with a seriously pissed off ghost of a seriously pissed off mental patient, “Mama” gets the upper hand, and the girls are about to go over the edge of the cliff when Annabel reveals the baby’s remains in her possession, handing them over to the distraught apparition and managing to get the girls away from the edge of the cliff. As “Mama” strokes the skull of the baby she lost so many years before, it looks like she’ll finally be at peace and Victoria and Lilly can return home and try to find a sense of normalcy.
That is, until Lilly, not entirely keen on losing the only mother she’s ever known, cries out for “Mama”, prompting the ghost to realize that she’d rather have a live child than the corpse of a dead one. She snatches the smaller girl away from Annabel’s grip, although Lilly seems willing, even eager, to go. When she tries to take Victoria as well, the older sister refuses to go- causing a moment of revelation for the sisters that they’re about to be separated forever. While Annabel sobs and pleads for “Mama” to give Lilly back, the sisters say goodbye to each other, and then Victoria and “Mama” say goodbye to each other, before the ghost pulls Lilly off the cliff, leaving Annabel, Lucas, and Victoria clinging to each other in disbelief on the ledge.
If the scene sounds morbid, it really isn’t. Before Lilly and “Mama” disappear together forever, hitting a branch on the way down and turning into a swarm of moths, which are a reoccurring and symbolic insect in the film, we do get one final shot of them on their descent, Lilly laughing while “Mama” smiles. It’s not gruesome as much as it is depressing.
The movie ends with one of the moths landing on Victoria’s hand, and the child acknowledging that it is her sister before the credits roll.
Like “The Orphanage”, “Mama” was both creepy and unexpectedly sad. When I wasn’t jumping at the scares, I was feeling a wide range of emotions for each of the characters and actually hoping things worked out for everyone (except Jean. God, Jean sucked), but del Toro has a knack for ripping my heart out with most of the films he’s involved with, and “Mama” was no exception. I think what stood out the most was that while stories like this have been done before: A mother wronged in life comes back in death looking for revenge, or her missing child, etc., “Mama” managed to stay unique and unpredictable, especially with the ending.
Visually, the movie is beautiful, and the acting didn’t disappoint- especially from the children. I was really impressed with how convincing the girls who played Victoria and Lilly were when it came to acting terrified or traumatized. You don’t see talent that often from grown adults, let alone little kids.
I definitely recommend catching this movie while it’s in theaters, and it’s most certainly worth renting when it’s released OnDemand. It’s got a great story laced with good scares.
4 chainsaws out of 5.