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“Mama” was a movie I saw promos for and got really excited about, but wasn’t able to see in theaters… partly because of child care issues (IRONIC), and partly because my husband isn’t a huge horror fan so it wasn’t at the top of our see-together-list. In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten the chance to see it on the big screen. But when it aired on HBO, I jumped at the chance to DVR it and watched it as soon as I could.
“Mama” is co-written and directed by Andrés Muschietti, based on his earlier short film called “Mama.” Guillermo del Toro served as exeuctive producer, a very good fit. “Mama,” like much of del Toro’s work, is deeply and unsettlingly creepy in the ways that the best fairy tales are unsettling and creepy.
The original film is a neat little confection of horror, short and to the point.
“Mama” the character is portrayed by Javier Botet, an actor with Marfan Syndrome, who uses his physicality and contortion ability to portray creepies in horror films. A big part of what makes Mama so very creepy is the human body behind the CGI.
If you don’t mind spoilers, or haven’t seen the movie in a while and want a refresher, here’s a collection of all the sightings of Mama– many of which I missed because I watched the film in a sun-flooded living room in the middle of the day.
“Mama” is a horror fairy tale about two little girls (Victoria and Lilly) taken into the woods by their father and left there. In this particular case he’s left them there because he’s killed their mother, after escaping some financial misdealings, and fled with them. A car crash sends them into the forest, where the little broken and bloody family comes across a seemingly abandoned house. Father urges his light-haired moppets inside but the older of the two– who’s lost her glasses– hangs back, convinced somebody’s inside. As usual, the instincts of a child are dead on, and whatever’s in the house kills murderous daddy and raises the children as its own.
Later on, due to ceaseless searching on behalf of their artist uncle Lucas (who pays someone else to search, not searching himself), the girls are found and brought to a hospital for evaluation. The doctor is pretty convinced that the older girl can be re-integrated into human society, but the younger one has almost no language and walks on four limbs instead of her feet. They sleep under the beds, they growl and snap, and they draw on the walls. When she gets her glasses back, however, the older sister recognizes her uncle, mistaking him at first for her father.
Uncle and his rock-star girlfriend Annabel gain custody of the children and are moved into an isolated mansion in the woods. The girls’ maternal aunt wants custody, but Uncle is willing to make deals with the doctor to allow him continued access to the kids, so they win. Not even pre-teens, and these girls are already marked by theft, fraud, murder, and shady ethical dealings. Girlfriend is reluctant to take on the (admittedly enormous) responsibility of co-parenting not just two young kids, but two young traumatized kids, one of whom is feral. She is adamant about not wanting to be a mother, about not wanting kids. But when her boyfriend needs her she bucks up and supports him.
Even when it means abandoning her career, her friends/social support, and her own family for life in a creepy house in the creepy woods with her boyfriend’s creepy kids. And then: Mama.
I was deeply worried that “Mama” would end like “The Orphanage” ends, with blame on the part of the mom for not being mom enough. Annabel, however, carves out her own place with the girls, her own relationship with them. And while it’s not quite enough, she isn’t punished for her failings, real or imagined.
Overall, I found it a satisfying movie. The characters are well developed; Mama is creepy and grotesque and tragic; the little girls are tremendous actors; the cinematography is beautiful and the settings are haunting. The ending doesn’t hold together as well as I’d like, because it’s not a good ending. There is no realistic way that Lucas and Annabel would be allowed to retain custody of Victoria, and most likely they would be accused of (and convicted of) murder themselves. The older I get, the more I want endings that aren’t tragic. They don’t have to be all sunsets and rainbows, but a bit of hope would be nice.
The film has some interesting things to say about parenting (we don’t know anything about bio-mom; bio-dad killed bio-mom after stealing a bunch of money from people; uncle Lucas spends money (inherited from his brother’s estate) but not his own time or effort looking for the kids; Annabel (who isn’t related by blood or marriage to the girls) spends time and effort caring for and nurturing the kids; Mama takes on raising the girls after her own child’s death. There’s also a look at abuse dynamics, I think. Mama’s love is smothering and harmful. She hurts other people and controls the girls, ignoring their desires and needs. Victoria, a child, is put in the position of trying to protect her younger sister and the adults in her life from Mama. Parents, adults, are supposed to protect kids from the monster under the bed. But Victoria, a child, has to protect her adults and younger sister from Mama. Mama selfishly tries to strip Victoria from the people who love her and who she loves, and in the end takes Lilly down with her.
Horror movies are at their best when they move beyond simply presenting something scary/creepy/other and when they include something a little deeper. Little kids, abandoned buildings, isolation, forced adoption, forced motherhood: these are all creepy things. But what do these things, and our attitudes toward them, say about us and our society? What is the line between love and obsession?
I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars.
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