Guillermo del Toro has been one busy bee since he first started turning heads way back in 1993 with his acclaimed debut, Cronos. Since that time, the Mexican-born filmmaker has dabbled in everything from comic book action cinema (Blade 2, the Hellboy franchise, the upcoming Incredible Hulk TV series) to kid’s animation (Kung Fu Panda 2, Rise of the Guardians). Hell; he’s even co-authored a series of novels (The Strain series, co-written by Chuck Hogan)! Regardless of them, genre, or medium, every project that the filmmaker involves himself in always has that some glint of that signature del Toro look and style; a mélange of fairy tales, mythology, fantasy, and, of course, the classic horror he grew up on. Holding true to the fairy tale ethic, del Toro’s whimsical yet often terrifying worlds are either seen through the eyes of –or revolve around- a pint-sized protagonist, whether it be Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia, The Devil’s Backbone’s Carlos, or, in the case of Mama, a pair of feral sisters named Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse).
Mama opens with a somewhat disturbing sequence involving Jeffery (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a failed investment banker who, financially ruined by the stock market crash of 2008, murders his wife, and absconds with the aforementioned Victoria and Lily. While fleeing into the countryside during a heavy snowstorm, their vehicle goes off the road, and the father and his two girls take refuge in a seemingly abandoned shack where the desperate and confused man makes the decision to kill his children before taking his own life. Before he can pull the trigger, however, the man is dispatched by a shrieking apparition, leaving the two girls to fend for themselves.
Flash forward five years; Jeffery’s brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), is a freelance illustrator who, along with his supportive rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, looking quite fetching with her shorn raven locks and Suicide Girl demeanor), has spent most of his time and money searching for his brother and his beloved nieces. Just as he’s nearly run out of money and hope, the two girls are found by a pair of hunter/tracker types in the same shack they took refuge in years before, surrounded by piles of cherry pits and walls scrawled with drawings detailing their time “alone” in the wild.
The girls are taken to a psychiatric facility where they are observed for several weeks by Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash); an opportunistic psychologist who finds their case both fascinating and potentially lucrative. When it comes time to determine where the girls will live, Dreyfuss pulls some strings to give custody of the girls to Lucas and Annabel (much to the chagrin of the girls’ Aunt Jean, played by Jane Moffat, who also voices the titular character), going so far as to provide them a house owned by the hospital so that they won’t be forced to raise them in their cramped apartment. Of course, there are strings attached. Dreyfuss expects to be able to interview the girls, especially Victoria, so that he can further investigate the being that the girls refer to as “Mama”. While Dreyfus makes some horrifying discoveries, he keeps Lucas and Annabel in the dark about his theories regarding Mama, but, when the protective apparition makes its presence known to Lucas, it’s with disastrous results that leave him hospitalized and Annabel alone with not only the two girls, but the supernatural force that considers them her children.
Directed by Andrés Muschietti, and based on his 2008 short film of the same name, Mama is a dark and deeply disturbing film for much of the first two acts, offering lots of moody atmosphere, effective jump scares, and some really unsettling subtext. Unfortunately, the film falls apart in its final act, where it seems as though Muschietti and his fellow screenwriters – sister, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross – lose control of the plot as things rush to an unsatisfying and, in my opinion, unnecessarily dour conclusion. Take, for example, the fact that Lucas has been hospitalized for a nasty fall, leaving Annabel – a woman who not only has no experience raising children, but also downright dislikes them – tasked with caring for his extremely troubled nieces. While sitting in his hospital bed, Lucas has a revelation about his brother’s death, and just ups and signs himself out so he can go off into the woods where his nieces were found and investigate. If he’s able to get up and walk around so well, why didn’t he do that earlier so that he could help out his obviously over-stressed girlfriend who’s stuck with his nieces? Why doesn’t he even bother to call Annabel to tell her what he’s doing? Minutes later, when Annabel is driving out to the same location in pursuit of Mama and the girls, she nearly runs Lucas over as he walks into the road, saying something about “getting her message”. We’re then given one of those flashback sequences that “explain it all” about Mama and her motivations (bits of which were teased earlier in the dreams of Lucas and Annabel, for some reason) in an attempt to tie up any loose plot threads, but it’s all so hastily cobbled together that it completely saps the emotion out of what is meant to be a tear-jerker ending. It’s a shame as the film really works well leading up to this, with an intriguing story, effective scares, and performances by Chastain and the young Charpentier that are well above genre average.
The Blu-ray release from Universal presents Mama in an appealing 1.85:1 1080p transfer that manages the film’s shadowy aesthete quite nicely, albeit occasionally succumbing to the unrelenting darkness in the guise of a spot of black crush here and there. The level of detail is exceptional, but, as a result, the CGI is put under the microscope of HD, and some of the shoddier bits stand out.
The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD soundtrack is an expertly mixed affair, with gut rumbling bass, crystalline highs, and clear and natural sounding dialogue. The real star here is the excellent surround mix, however, as the viewer is drawn into the film by an all-encompassing assortment of environmental sounds and creepy directional cues.
Extras include an audio commentary track with the Muschietti siblings, who discuss their labor of love with great enthusiasm and in great detail.
Also included is the short film, Mama (HD), upon which this one is based, featuring a brief introduction by del Toro, as well as an optional commentary with the Muschiettis.
Rounding out the extras are two short featurettes – The Birth of Mama (HD), and Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama (HD), the former serving as a quick-and-dirty EPK style featurette, while the latter focuses on the film’s CGI work. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer (HD), as well as trailers for other Universal releases.
Like all of del Toro’s productions, Mama definitely shows signs of his handiwork, but, sadly, not enough of his magic made it into this film’s disappointing third act; a rushed and clumsy conclusion that thoroughly derails what was, up until then, a tense and scary little ghost story. Still, the production values and performances are top notch, and there’s enough good here to recommend a rental, but those looking for better examples of the filmmaker's Midas touch would be better served looking elsewhere.