MAMA. Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, and Javier Botet. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Rated M (Horror themes, violence and infrequent coarse language). 100 min.

Arguably, one of the finest exponents of the fantasy-horror genre living in the world today is Mexican Director, Guillermo del Toro, who is the co-producer and presenter of this movie. Del Toro was the Director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

The film is a Spanish-Canadian horror film with a twisty and elaborate plot. In the financial crisis of 2008, a man by the name of Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kills his business partners and wife before escaping with his two children, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) to a deserted cabin in the woods. His plan is to kill them, and then commit suicide. Jeffrey arrives at the abandoned cabin and asks Victoria to look outside the window. Just as he is about to fire the gun that he holds to her head, a shadowy figure pulls him away, kills him, and starts feeding cherries to the girls. Five years later, a party organised by Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), finds the abandoned house, and the children in it, who have lived there alone for all those years and are now wild and animal-like in their behaviour.

Lucas asks Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a rock musician to help him raise his nieces. Not being overly-fond of children, she is reluctant to help, but agrees. It soon becomes obvious that the cabin is inhabited by a ghost (described early in the movie as an “emotion bent out of shape”), and the children have a guardian who looks after them called “Mama” (Javier Botet). She is playful, vicious, and unexpectedly awkward.

After their rescue, the courts place the children in the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who becomes intrigued by drawings the children have made of Mama, with whom they continue to talk and play. When Dreyfuss puts the children in his Institute’s house to study them, Lucas meets with an accident caused by Mama, leaving Annabel alone in the house to look after them.

Dreyfuss’s research brings to light the image of Mad Edith, who was an asylum inmate in the 19th. Century, who committed suicide with a child she now keeps looking for. She is the likely identity of Mama, and she despatches Dreyfuss when he threatens her by returning to her cabin. The final scene shows Mama, with Lilly cocooned in her hands, jumping off a high cliff near to where the asylum used to be. It is Lilly, not Victoria, who loves Mama unconditionally, and Mama takes Lilly to the grave to cease her own searching. At the bottom of the cliff, Lilly turns into a shower of moths, one of which lands on Victoria’s hand as a beautiful butterfly. It is a fanciful ending to a horror movie that is extraordinarily imaginative and affecting. Moths are everywhere where Mama is.

This is a ghost story that has loads of atmosphere, and with del Toro’s influence and Muschietti’s controlled direction, it is much more than just a film that has scary scenes. There is relatively little explicit violence in the movie, and the ending is very touching. Mama wants the girls to herself, and she does all she can to achieve it. It is characteristic of del Toro that he paints his horror scenes with an exquisite brush, but he makes sure they also frighten.

There are derivative signs in the film such as mould spreading over the walls (from “Repulsion”, 1965), the use of crouched and crawling figures (from “The Exorcist”, 1973), and the film borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) series. But the original images are used distinctively, and there is never any doubt about the visual style that permeates the entire film. The style merges moments of horror and tenderness, which makes the movie moving, as well as frightening.

The film is not edited well, but has moments of great power. Individual scenes, like Lilly’s final goodbye in Mama’s hands, and the butterfly landing on Victoria’s arm, have an impact all of their own. This is a movie that asks for emotional commitment, and where caring goes hand-in-hand with what also startles.

This film is a quality movie, embedded creatively in the fantasy-horror genre, and it offers much to be appreciated.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Universal Pictures.

Out March 14th 2013.

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