The 2013 ghost story Mama was based on a 2008 short film of almost the same name (Mamá—note the accent mark, as this is a Spanish-language film). Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro loved the short and decided to executive produce the feature adaptation. Too bad he didn’t actually direct it, as he may have found a way to make the entire feature as compelling as the short. Director Andy Muschietti, who co-wrote Mama with Bárbara Muschietti and Neil Cross, couldn’t quite transform his intriguing four-minute short into an entirely successful 100-minute film.
In a nutshell, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known as Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones) is a married man and father of two who is in the middle of a very bad day. After murdering his wife, he drives his two kids (aged three and one) out to a remote, snowy cabin. He plans to take their lives too, but is prevented from doing so by an apparition in the cabin. The gangly ghost makes short work of Jeffrey, but keeps the two kids alive.
Five years later, the girls are discovered living alone, basically in a feral state. The elder of the pair, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), is eight and her sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), is six. Their father’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) never gave up hope that his nieces would be found. While they are initially very resistant to human contact, once she is provided with new eyeglasses, Victoria recognizes Lucas’ resemblance to her father. After establishing that he is not her father, Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take the girls to their home where they plan to raise them as their own.
The rehabilitation of two abandoned children is certainly fertile dramatic ground. There have been documented cases of similarly severe neglect and the developmental challenges that accompany them. The rehabilitation of these girls (at least of Victoria) comes a little too easily. We soon find out that the same spirit that killed Jeffrey has provided some form, however bizarre, of “parenting.” The girls are always referring to this presence, unseen to everyone but them, as “Mama” (played by Javier Botet). The more we learn about Mama’s backstory, the more confused the film’s tone becomes. Without spoiling the surprises, it’s safe to say that Mama is more a tragic figure as opposed to horrific.
With Lucas out of commission for most of the film, hospitalized after a nasty fall that probably should’ve rendered him paralyzed, Coster-Waldau is unable to contribute much. Chastain, however, continues to impress with another chameleonic performance. As the punk rock bassist Annabel, the 36-year-old actress effortlessly evokes a persona that feels at least 10 years younger. While her character arc is somewhat predictable as written, Chastain proves she belongs in better movies than this (see her in Zero Dark Thirty and the criminally underrated Lawless). As the haunted children, both Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse turn in fresh, unaffected performances that help add some credibility to their otherwise too convenient reintegration in society.
Keeping in line with the level of clarity and excellence we’ve come to expect from the format, Mama looks great on Blu-ray. Antonio Riestra’s dark cinematography has a great deal of detail, even during the frequently shadowy scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is also effective, delivering plenty of spooky, unsettling ambient effects from the rear channels. The appearances of Mama are accompanied by startling audio effects that goose viewers exactly as intended. No complaints about this audio/visual presentation.
Special features are not exactly extensive, but there are a few useful items here for those who want to know more about Mama. The main attraction is a commentary by Andy and Bárbara Muschietti, the sibling partnership that co-wrote the film (Andy directed, Barbara produced). The original short film that spawned the feature is included, along with a couple of superficial featurettes and a few minutes of deleted scenes. Overall, Mama is strong on atmosphere but the Muschiettis don’t exactly instill the depth this material could’ve used.