Mama, my new favorite horror movie, stars a pair of startling blonde children, Victoria and Lilly. Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier,is the elder, and wise beyond her years (indicated by her glasses, which only smart kids wear). The younger sister, Lilly, played by Isabelle Nélisse, is a moth-devouring, house-terrorizing, easily amused little girl. Incidentally, Jessica Chastain also “acts” in the film. She’s a rocker chick, and it’s unintentionally hilarious. She has dark hair and wears dark eyeliner and black bras, and therefore, is a badass. I just about died of laughter every time she played a guitar.
The film opens with Lilly and Victoria’s deranged father driving the two girls erratically on snowy roads in the Northwest. As he pops pills and drips blood all over the seat, a sense of foreboding sets in. Spoiler: Dad’s not going to make it, and this car ride isn’t going to end well. In the following scene, the father has the gun to Victoria’s head but the child is saved at the last possible moment by a mysterious witch-woman, or, Mama as the girls will come to call her. Five years later, a search party orchestrated by the girl’s uncle, Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, finds the children in the same strange cabin. Unfortunately for Lucas, and his badass girlfriend Annabel, played by Chastain, these girls are not the kids they used to be. Instead, the child-mongrels are eerily skinny, strange and unapproachable. Lilly runs around like a child version of Gollum, alternating between eating cherry pits and moth wings. Victoria, the elder sister, maneuvers the rooms of their new home like a ghost, self-alienated and exceptionally strange. Raised by Mama, who coincidentally, is certifiable, the girls have developed odd habits and very poor social skills. Furthermore, crazy Mama herself has followed the little girls to their new home, which will lead to a host of problems larger than Lilly’s unwillingness to wear shoes. Following a series of foreboding events, Lucas suffers a coma, and Annabel is stuck with the kids.
Shockingly, Mama is not the biggest fan of Annabel’s mothering skills, or Jessica Chastain’s performance in general. Perhaps Mama saw Zero Dark Thirty and had the same feeling that I did: disappointment. Who knows, though. I’m no mind-reader. Regardless of the source, the tension between Mama and Annabel comes to a head. Drama ensues mainly because Mama wants to mother the kids, but since she is a fantastical monster and this is America, that cannot come to pass. Also, since Annabel is in a band, she refuses to make friends.Mama, as a product of Hollywood cinema, must be criticized in some part for its plot line. Or lack thereof. It’s chock full of holes. There are several odd occurrences throughout the movie which remain unclarified. Also, Mama’s backstory is rather forced. Does it matter that the plot makes no sense? I’m glad you asked, because no, it does not.
Quick VC Anecdote: a student in my Asian Horror Cinema class said that there is an easy way to scare an audience, by filling the movie with moments that make people jump, and a more complex, strategic path to take which involves a lot more skill. Mama follows the former approach, by making audience members pop around like spider monkeys. Every couple of minutes another clichéd scary movie trope flashes across the screen, such as: people popping out, doors hiding characters, excessive dark spaces, wacky kids, etc. While I agree that often “jump” inducing films can be idiotic and lose intensity by resorting to age old scare tactics, Mama is not one of these movies. It’s terrifying every single time. I was on edge the entire film. I was tense, I was sweating, I was climbing all over my friend. I couldn’t help myself. Mama combines my worst fears: children, forced motherhood, and a man who looks like the guy from “Monk” but is, tragically, not him.
As Lilly and Victoria terrorize Annabel, mainly by being so weird that she can’t communicate with them, and Mama starts emerging out of walls and flying moths all over the damn place, the audience panics. Usually scary movies build up anticipation for the first visual of the monster-character, and once you finally see them, you feel relieved because it isn’t scary. Once again, Mama supercedes other scary movies. The witch woman, CGI’d to great effect, was a monstrosity. Her whipping tendrils of hair, cirque du soleil-esque way of crawling around, and searing gaze will haunt my dreams.
I loved Mama because it succeeded in the ultimate horror movie quest: leave your audiences terrified. Sure, it uses less than unique scare tactics. Sure, Jessica Chastain is god awful as an emo-punk rocker. Sure, the plot line is exceptionally weak. However, I was so frightened after seeing the movie that I doubt I will ever be able to sleep properly in any room with closets, or walls again. At this point, witches, moths, and motherhood are all off the table for me. I just couldn’t bear to experience that type of emotional roller coaster again. But, you definitely should. Go see it, now. There’s no better birth control.