In recent years, Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic output as a producer has significantly outweighed that of his output as a director. Although we can finally expect something new from him later this year in the form of Pacific Rim, his time out of the director’s chair (he hasn’t completed a feature since 2008’s Hellboy sequel) has at least allowed him to continue his pleasing hobby of lending his clout in the business to get horror projects off the ground.
This penchant for guiding up-and-coming talent into the business via horror projects arguably produced its most rewarding results back in 2007, when del Toro helped get JA Bayona’s excellent The Orphanage onto the screen; after that, Bayona went on to give us last year’s The Impossible. There have been a few other projects since then, including the atmospheric Julia’s Eyes, with which del Toro’s latest production effort – Mama, directed by Andres Muschietti – shares a few similarities.
An interesting thematic twist on the haunted house genre, Mama takes its cues from all manner of horror and thriller films. Jessica Chastain and Game of Thrones’ Nickolaj Coster-Waldau star as surrogate parents to a pair of disturbed children who have lived a feral, parent-less existence in an abandoned – or is it? – log cabin in the woods. When the children are found and taken into care, they appear to believe that a mysterious entity they refer to as ‘Mama’ was there all along, helping to take care of them.
As in so many of these films, the loving partner (in this case Coster-Waldau) is fairly quickly side-lined in order to free up some room in the big spooky house for lots of creepy goings-on. Annabel (Chastain) must therefore look after the children on her own, trying to get to grips with their lack of social skills while investigating what may or may not be another presence in the household. Annabel is not ready for rearing children (the film establishes this by placing her in a rock band) but is a generally good-natured person; she needs to be, because these are children who need special care.
The theme of mothers and daughters resounds throughout the film, at times very effectively. Muschietti makes some inevitable use of the children’s regressive state for scares and jump shocks, but they are not the antagonists of the film; in fact, there are some genuinely moving moments tucked away in here, and when they turn up unexpectedly, they’re more effective than any of the film’s crash-bang scare tactics. That said, the film is certainly not incompetent at dealing with the horror side of things – there’s a whole range of shock tactics employed here (although, notably, not graphic violence) and most work well.
Although the film’s primary raison d’etre is to make you jump, and it does so effectively from time to time, there are some slightly rough edges that even the unexpected level of emotional depth can’t quite circumvent. The script, in places, does drift dangerously close to cliché and cheese, in particular during one quite lazy voiceover, and some of the scares are a little too derivative to be truly effective. There are also a couple of (admittedly very minor) gaps in the film’s internal logic, and the ending is a strange beast. It appears to want to blend two endings into one, and it doesn’t entirely work, leaving a strange sense of inadequacy.
But despite these quibbles, the film is a much-better-than-average entry in the over-populated haunted house genre. It has the guts to persist with a genuinely interesting and occasionally thought-provoking idea, even if it muddles the denouement somewhat. There is also some satisfyingly dark humour to be had in here, and in the end the clichés and overly repetitive plot structure can’t derail what is a well-played, well-shot horror flick.