In the sleepy January movie season, Mama, a 2013 horror film was published. However, its origins date from 2008. That’s when “Mamá,” a short film directed by Argentinian director Andy Muschietti and produced and co-written by his sister Barbara Muschietti, began making the festival rounds. There, it caught the attention of fantasy / horror director Guillermo del Toro, who later called it “one of the scariest little scenes I’ve ever seen.” How scary? This scary:
With del Toro executive producing, the Muschiettis collaborated with writer Neil Cross (creator of Luther) to expand the short into a feature. That was no mean feat, given its simplicity. What began as a horrific vignette became a fully fleshed-out story in which Jeffrey (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), having lost his money in the financial collapse of 2008, kills his co-workers and wife and kidnaps his two terrified daughters. Heading into the hills, he crashes his car and walks to a remote cabin where he plans to kill his children, then himself. But a mysterious entity that lives in the cabin has other plans, and it clearly sympathizes with the girls.
Flash-forward five years. Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is on the verge of going broke paying for search parties to comb the woods for signs of his brother and nieces. First introduced sighing in relief at a negative pregnancy test, Jeffrey’s girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) remains supportive but has no expectations that his efforts will come to anything. If it did, that might interrupt her life of playing bass in a garage rock band, a passion she has no plans to give up.
Then, unexpectedly, a pair of searchers finds the girls, now ages eight and six, living in the cabin in squalor. Both have reverted to an almost feral state. And though they appear to have been alone, when Victoria (Megan Charpentier), the older girl, recovers her ability to talk, she speaks of someone named “Mama” who looked after the sisters during their time in the wilderness. The guardian then starts to visit Lucas and Annabel at home.
WHY WATCH NOW?
2017 saw the release of Muschietti’s second feature, It, which became the highest-grossing horror film of all time. Now comes It Chapter Two, which adapts the second half of Stephen King’s magnum opus and co-stars Chastain.
Casting rumors surround every major film adaptation, but the casting talk around It Chapter Two took an unusual form. Not only did fans have to consider stars that might fit the characters described by Stephen King, but they also had to consider who might work as the grown-up versions of the first film’s kid stars. Even so, Chastain’s casting seemed like a fait accompli from the start, given her past with Muschietti and the red hair she shares with King’s descriptions of Beverly and It co-star Sophia Lillis. Unsurprisingly, Chastain delivers one of the sequel’s standout performances. But Mama gives her even more to do.
Many of the elements that make Mama remarkable can be found in the original short: the fluid camerawork, Muschietti’s facility with child actors, the eerie digital effects. But the way the feature adds narrative and thematic depth to the scariness is what sets it apart, and much of the burden of that rests on Chastain’s shoulders as Annabel. Trading her flowing red hair for a black shag and dressing in dark clothing, Chastain captures Annabel’s fear of motherhood and a settled life, which she views as a more concrete threat than any spectral creature.
The film doesn’t judge for her it, either. One day, she’s living a cool life in the city in a cramped but funky apartment. The next, she’s whisked off to the suburbs and tasked with creating an environment stable and nurturing enough that the courts will let Lucas keep custody of his nieces. And the girls are no picnic, either. Victoria cowers through life, and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) holds fast to the animalistic ways she picked up in the forest, growling rather than talking and sleeping on the floor beneath her sister’s bed. Even without a malevolent spirit harassing them, Annabel has her hands full, and her distress and frustration give the film’s title an extra layer of meaning.
Though Mama is a much smaller film than It Chapter Two, both Chastain and Muschietti benefit from the tightness. Where sometimes the It monster feels too computer-generated to be threatening, Mama’s effects lean into their digital origins and create one memorably unsettling monster — one that’s sometimes weirdly sympathetic. Chastain has space to craft a fully developed character whose journey takes her to some unexpected emotional places, and Muschietti finds a single dark fairy tale tone and sticks with it from beginning to end. (It’s no accident that the film opens with the words “Once upon a time…”) It’s such a striking, confident, contained movie that it would be a shame if Muschietti got lost in the blockbuster world for good. Hopefully, like del Toro, he can find his way back to making smaller-scale films between mammoth projects.
WHO IT’S FOR
Anyone who enjoys It and its sequel will likely enjoy this as well. And the crowd that avoids PG-13 horror films on principle owes it to themselves to give this one a look. It’s exactly as violent as it needs to be, and Muschietti understands that spookiness sometimes works better than jolts.
WHERE TO SEE IT
Mama is available to purchase on all major streaming services.