Director Guillermo del Toro has established himself as the master of the ghost shot: where something is stirring, only the audience has “imagined” the worst, and over the shoulder we glimpse an apparition, whether it’s that relentless ghostboy in The Devil’s Backbone or the first tentacled wisp of an otherworldly matriarch in Mama.
Del Toro is credited as producer on first time director Andes Muschietti’s expanded feature based on his short of the same name. In the movie, Jessica Chastain takes time off from her rock band to care for two feral children that are related to her boyfriend. After a financial crisis, it seems the boyfriend’s brother killed his estranged wife and a business partner, then grabbed his two girls and headed into the mountains on ice-slick backroads. He wrecks, gets the girls to a vacant cabin where a vengeful spirit prevents him from a murder/suicide.
Mama combines elements from two different sources. One is a Mexican folk tale that has circulated Texas border towns since the late 1880s about a “crying woman” seen searching for her dead child. To hear the eerie sound of her wailing is a certain death sentence. The story goes that after her illegitimate baby is taken from her by authorities, she steals the infant back and kills both herself and the child by drowning in a lake.
Muschietti has padded his story with a persistent supernatural urgency common in more recent angel-of-death encounters, especially the sightings of a winged creature in and around Texas. In the late ’60s, eyewitnesses observed similar apparitions in months leading to a bridge collapse in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, commonly known as the Mothman saga. If you watch Mama closely, there are images that were evident in 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies.
Allegedly covered with hair mistaken for feathers, both moths and hair permeate the frames of Mama as the two siblings – Lily and Victoria – interact with their “angel.” Hair carries voodoo properties as well as being a living entity in Japanese horror. Rooted in psychoanalytical fluency, Mama is contained within the confines of the family realm, while the Mothman is more of a sociological exercise in mass hallucination.
After the boyfriend suffers a fall and slips into a coma, it becomes his girlfriend’s role to provide a stable environment for the kids or relatives hope to step in and receive full custody. It’s a tough situation, especially since the girls converse with the walls and Lily, the youngest, has no grasp of English but grunts and hums. Victoria is more well adjusted but remains skeptical of this unknown rocker thrust into motherhood.
Initially the movie is focused on children raised apart from civilized contact, having to fend for themselves in deplorable conditions before being found, which recalls Michael Apted’s Nell or Truffaut’s The Wild Child. But once reunited with their deceased father’s brother and moved to a location accessible to a psychiatrist who’s researching folklore, the movie becomes a Creepy or Eerie tale illustrated by Gray Morrow about gothic surroundings and supernatural vengeance.
Unlike most modern horror, Mama has a beginning, middle and ending. It has a monster! There are reasons why things occur as they do, and judgments carry consequences. And though I loved V/H/S and Insidious, they are modern adaptations of classic themes.
Mama is classic horror.
All the scientific jargon that cites “the beyond” as either aberrations of the mind or the materializations of energy get the heave-ho. This is a plain old ghost story, atmospheric and profusely littered with the accouterments of clutter common in these encounters.
The Mothman was largely seen around a munitions dump.
The miracle at Lourdes in 1858 took place in a garbage dump.
Mothers superior and otherwise are drawn to squalor.
After all, Mama is just another word for Mother, and you can’t spell “mother” without “moth.”