After having seen the short film Mama is based on, which is just a scene in the feature film, I had no idea I was going to witness an accomplished effort as this. The opening of the film is chillingly reminiscent of the mountainous opening of The Shining (1980) and creepy cabin shiver of The Evil Dead (1981). The rest of it never goes off rails which is a great thing considering the trappings of the genre.
Jump scares. These two words are pretty much the sole reason why this genre will never be taken seriously. Mama has a few jump scares but mostly it has moments of genuine creepiness. The scares don't come from physically lifting you off your seats but lifting your emotions out of the dark corners of your heart. Slowly. Now, that's what I call scary. How do you do that? Primarily with images. Not sound. It plays with the cardinal rule of not showing the monster \xe1 la Cat People (1943). It's funny that I mentioned Cat People. Val Lewton was a producer of B-grade horror films that made him an icon with horror geeks, including myself. Guillermo Del Toro could easily be the modern day Lewton with two slam dunks under his belt with El Orfanato (2007) and Mama.
Mama is about two little girls who are being haunted by the ghost of a mother. In comes Annabel played by Jessica Chastain, reluctantly taking on the role of their new mother. Essentially, this is the story. I wouldn't want to get into details of the plot, since its unfolding while making you believe in it, progressing with tremendous skill is one of the rewards of the film. Andy Muschietti is clearly a talent. I would certainly be looking forward to what he does next. It is when true believers of the genre spin a new web that we see it come back to life.
Apart from Chastain, it is the performance by Megan Charpentier, who plays one of the girls, that makes the film more than just a scary movie. I don't remember the last time I was emotionally connected to a horror film. I bet it was The Sixth Sense (1999). I wish the emotional connection would have been more. Especially during the ending. Not that the emotional thread wasn't satisfying but it could have done with a bit more depth. I feel this probably because I'm tipping it against The Sixth Sense and I know the extent it could be taken to (there is a scene towards to end of that film which always makes me cry, always).
If I had to point out one reason why Mama worked for me, it would not be the emotional connection or because the ghost isn't shown for most of the film. It is because of the fact that the ghost is indeed revealed to us. The film actually becomes creepier, instead of becoming ridiculous. This is a rare achievement. Props to the visual effects team for making the ghost seem hidden even when it is in full view.
I was incredibly impressed with Antonio Riestra's camerawork. The visual tone of the film is unlike anything I've seen in horror films before. The flashback and its impeccable stylization never throws you off. Mama is what separates good modern horror films from the rest of the junk. It doesn't rely on genre conventions but embraces them while taking it forward.view less