Mama, the highly anticipated ghost story directed by Andy Muschietti from his 2008 short by the same name and executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, was released in theaters across this fine nation Friday, January 18. The story follows a young couple, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who, after spending five years tirelessly searching for his nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), find and adopt the long-lost and now feral girls. No one is quite sure how they managed to survive all this time on their own, but Lucas is determined to take custody and raise his nieces. Unfortunately for Lucas and Annabel, the girls already have a mother and she is not looking for joint custody.
For some reason, and I am still not sure why, when Gilly del T works on a film that is in Spanish, like The Orphanage or The Devil’s Backbone or a project that simply has roots in Spanish, like Mama, the all-round quality of the film is heads and shoulders better than something in English, like Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark. One thing I definitely appreciate about this movie, as well as The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone, is that it is a throwback to an earlier era of horror when plots were simpler, the scares were classier, and audiences were more open to playful chills and bumps in the night. Where Mama falls flat is that it is narratively thin, repetitive, and relies too much on “gotcha” moments that quickly grow tiresome. However, I suppose that is to be expected when one stretches what was originally a three-minute short into an hour and a half full-length feature.
At the risk of dishing major spoilers, I have to say that there is one thing I absolutely love and one thing I hate about Mama. I want to end on a good note, so let’s start with the bad. Gilly has fallen prey to America’s greatest fraud (that something interesting is never worth explaining), so we, the audience, must take it upon ourselves to fill in the blanks. I have unanswered questions about Mama’s untenable borigin story – that’s a mix of boring and origin for those who didn’t know – and the symbolism of the moths.
The character of Mama bares some similarities to the Mexican folk legend of La Llorona, a beautiful young woman(aren’t they all?) who drowned herself and her children after getting dumped by the man she loves. Though accounts differ, most retellings warn that La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who resemble her missing children or children who disobey their parents. However, all we know about Mama is that she escaped from the nervous hospital for “sad people,” broke into the church next door, kidnapped a baby, burned it’s eyes out, jumped off a cliff, dropped the baby, and drowned. We don’t know any of the particulars about how she came to be in the hospital or why her child was removed from her care. We don’t even know for sure if that baby was actually hers! Mama also has unusual facial features. There is no clear bone structure to her face. I am not sure if this is the screenwriters trying to convey a sense of her being underwater, as is the case with her flowing hair and clothing, but it leads me to believe that her elongated, Modigliani-inspired appearance might be an outward symptom of a birth defect or disfiguring illness that would have landed her in a hospice in the 1800s and would have also classified her as an unfit mother at the same time, assuming she was even pregnant before entering the hospital for that matter.
Now, what is the deal with the moths? In my efforts to uncover the mysteries of the moth symbolism in film and literature, I found that our fuzzy-winged friends are closely associated with vulnerability, concealment, shadows, dreams, psychic awareness, secret knowledge, – whatever that means – and ironically enough, subtlety. I think that from these key terms, we can easily enough suss out the connection on a surface level. A master of disguise, the moth can blend in to the point of invisibility. This is a metaphor for us to use our environment to our advantage, blend in when necessary, adjust and adapt when the situation requires it. But what about that weird cocoon thing at the end? I personally feel that the resolution is the moment when the film is at its weakest. Funny enough, the same goes for future-moths and could-be butterflies when they are undergoing metamorphosis. Obviously, this has to do with the changing of Mama’s character. In particular, moths and butterflies have a parallel use, where moths are often thought of as “ugly” or ”dark,” variations of the ”beautiful” and ”pure” butterflies. The contrast between the two as similar beings with differing attributes is often used to show two sides to characters, or in this case, the melding of Mama and Lily.
Time for the good news! I am not a fan of CGI. In most movies, I find it distracting, unnecessary, overused, and cheap-looking in most cases. However, I am pleased to announce that Mama was played by an actual person! Yes, an honest to God human being, Javier Botet, who readers might know as the emaciated demon girl in [REC]. While there is clearly some CGI in play, I want to be clear that Botet wore an actual costume and makeup for the part. Mama’s movements are his movements. It gives me hope that maybe other films, genre aside, will tone down the CGI and utilize more elaborate make-up and costume design.
“…Botet as Mama was done entirely practically, with shots layered over each other to get the proper spooky effect…”
In closing, if I were to rate this movie on a scale of full price, matinee, Netflix, torrent, or streaming, I would give it a solid matinee. Like The Ring and others that came before it, during Mama you will be stressed out and extremely tense for no other reason than the amount of pressure you are under to keep cool in front of your fellow movie-goers. And while you collect your belongings and file out of the theater, you won’t feel frightened. However, Mama is a torpedo that shoots into your brain but doesn’t detonate until the sun goes down. Once you pull on your jam jams and roll into bed, every creak and groan of your poorly maintained Brooklyn apartment will become that spider-finger bitch creepin’ around, feeding bugs to your kids and ruining your wallpaper.