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January 19, 2013

In a way, it’s surprising that we haven’t had more horror movies about feral children. The liminal space between civilized humanity and the uncivilized wild is such fertile ground for exploring all sorts of unsettling aspects of ourselves that it’s easy to come up with premises. Mama, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by the same Andrés Muschietti who made the original short film, digs into what such children might bring back, highlighting the psychological impact of a feral period while making it frighteningly real.

The children are eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and six-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), who have lived for the past five years in an isolated cabin in the middle of the central Virginia woods. The obvious question is how a an infant and a toddler survived their first winter in the wild, let alone four more; the answer is that something else lived in the cabin. She adopted the girls, and she is not about to let them go.

The cabin is eventually discovered. The girls are taken into protective care at a nearby psychological institute; their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is contacted. He’s an artist and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) plays bass in a punk band; neither of them seems truly ready to take on the mantle of parenthood, and yet they make their bid for custody, in opposition to the girls’ great-aunt (Jane Moffat, who also provided part of Mama’s voice). The psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), agrees to back their case, though, as long as they move into a Richmond house the institute maintains for ongoing case studies and allows him to continue working with the girls.

Also moving into the new house is “Mama”, the girls’ ghostly protector. Within a few days, Lucas is injured and hospitalized, leaving Annabel stranded in the unwanted role of single mother to two difficult children in a house she must eventually realize is haunted.

Muschietti raises the tension delicately, aside from an early scare. In one scene, he frames Annabel and Victoria in a hallway on the left of the screen while the half-open doorway on the right shows Lilly playing tug-of-war with a blanket; the other end is held by someone not only unaccounted-for, but much taller than her. Something is clearly very wrong here, but we get to let this eerie environment sink in slowly rather than have every point shoved into our faces.

When Mama is on screen, though, the effect is fantastic, due in no small part to the fact that she is much more real than CGI. Actor Javier Botet is as ectomorphic as Mama is ectoplasmic, and he rivals del Toro favorite Doug Jones in his physical performance. That said, the CGI effects are pretty fantastic as well, especially a few dream sequences that help fill in Mama’s back story.

And it’s this history that helps make this a good horror movie rather than just a bunch of jump scares and things going bump in the night. It’s nothing revolutionary, but there’s a certain comfortable familiarity to a well-told ghost story, even if it does lean on some well-worn tropes.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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