Review: Andrés Muschietti’s Directorial Debut Mama (2013) is a Love Letter to Japanese Ghost Stories

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Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) just killed his business partner and his estranged wife. He’s now taking his two daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) and driving them to who knows where. The road is icy and he’s driving like a maniac. They have an accident: The car slides down the mountain and into the woods. They find a cabin. Time to kill the children and then himself, but not on Mama’s watch. Who’s Mama? A mysterious figure with long black hair and super skinny arms. She saves the two innocent girls, but can they really grow up in the woods with a ghost? 

Andrés Muschietti’s Mama (sorry, had to) is based on a short film by the same name and directed by the same guy. It’s a truly impressive directorial debut and a rather unusual genre film. It manages to stay away from most of the annoying clichés we’ve come to expect from contemporary horror films. It also prefers to build on atmosphere instead of jump scares, although there’s still a couple. My favorite thing about Mama however is the character of Mama. While usually I prefer not to see the “villain”, because imagining them is always scarier it makes sense to show Mama.

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Mama is ghost. If you’re familiar with Japanese ghost stories (Yūrei), she may be familiar to you. It’s usually about a woman who died under rather unfortunate and unjust circumstances. Her ghost terrorizes and haunts people until she gets some sort of closure. Usually she has long black hair and a pale face. While Mama is technically not Japanese, she sure shares a lot of the same characteristics. What I love about Japanese ghost stories is that the Yūrei character is always sympathetic or at the very least you understand her motives. In Mama, Mama lost her baby, so she’ll look for it forever.

The other character in Mama are interesting as well, especially Annabel (Jessica Chastain), not because she’s written better than the others, but because of the depth that the Chastain adds to it. The whole film is essentially a reflection on motherhood, sisterhood, fatherhood and other words that end in hood I’m sure. At the beginning of the film we see Annabel who’s relieved to discover that she’s not pregnant. Ironically she’s then forced to take care of not one, but two children (and a ghost). The beauty of horror is that social commentary can be more subtle than in drama.

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Whereas Annabel doesn’t want to be a mother, that is all Mama ever wanted. Victoria and Lilly are orphans and grew up without their real mother (or father), Mama becomes their surrogate mother, just like they become her surrogate children. They both need each other. They are the only family they’ve got. Lucas wants the girls to have a real family. Victoria, the older girl, probably remembers what it’s like to have a real mother and accepts Lucas and Annabel’s love. Lilly on the other hand is younger and only ever knew Mama. In this regard it makes perfect sense that she can’t let go of her.

The ending of this film is beautiful. In a way it’s really sad, yet at the same time it’s also strangely hopeful. I guess you could call it bittersweet. The ending of Mama is also where the film differs from the traditional Japanese ghost story narrative. Usually Japanese ghosts are when they resolve the thing that’s been bothering them about their past. In Mama however the ghost doesn’t want to be alone for all eternity. Being reunited with the bones of her baby doesn’t make her happy. She wants more. She wants to be loved. She wants a the real child she never had.

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For all the rage and anger tormenting her, it’s however endearing to see a glimpse of humanity still inside her. It’s in her eyes and the fact that she understands that Annabel loves the children just as much as her. We see that she is not completely evil and that makes her more complex and sympathetic. This is where the film really elevates itself. There’s an emotional honesty and truthfulness in that moment. It’s also a beautifully composed shot, even though the picture is almost pitch black. In fact, even though a lot the film is set during nighttime it never gets tiresome to watch.

I was not in the mood for a horror film the other night, but the more I kept watching Mama the more I found myself engrossed in the story and the world that Muschietti crafted so carefully. Though a lot of the creature design is visibly CGI, and not the best (due to the film’s budget), it is never distracting or annoying. You don’t really expect practical effects anymore nowadays, although they’re usually preferable, because there’s an added physicality and believability to them (of course not everything is feasible). The makeup in Mama is quite effective, and certainly the girls look quite scary in some scenes.

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The film itself is not really scary, although I usually find thrillers and certain types of dramas to be scarier, because they’re easier to buy into. Supernatural horror usually only scares me when there is a religious component. Even though Mama is not scary it is a gripping mystery that will keep your attention until the end. It’s a very entertaining film. There’s not a dull moment. My only complaint is that certain plot points seem rather pointless or leading nowhere. Sometimes the film digresses a bit, but usually it makes sense, which again can’t be said for many genre films these days.

I really enjoyed the film overall, though it is not perfect it was much better than what I expected. Both Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse give great performances, not just for child actors, but for actors in general. Fernando Velázquez‘s score accompanies the film perfectly without ever distracting the viewer or taking them out of the experience. It’s not a score you notice or remember, but that seems to be a voluntary choice. The film largely succeeds because of its mysterious and creepy atmosphere and the score is certainly a big part of that, but also editing and sound design in general.

7.5 out of 10

12 comments

    • Davide Perretta

      Thanks Anna! I don’t know why other people didn’t like it, maybe they wanted it to be scarier or something.. Maybe it’s because I had low expectations, but I thought it was definitely one of the best horror films of last year.

  1. Alina (literaryvittles)

    I didn’t hear anything about this film, so I’m very glad you decided to review it! I adore Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain is always fantastic, so I think I have no choice but to watch this. Plus I like “nighttime” movies with dark cinematography.

    • Davide Perretta

      Oh good! I didn’t know Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but between him and Mads Mikkelsen I’m happy that we’re seeing more Danish actors in English language films. He’s really good in it btw, plays two roles, but I didn’t even notice (I guess because I’m not familiar with his face)

      • Alina (literaryvittles)

        Coster-Waldau is in Game of Thrones, so he’s pretty well-known in the States, for a Danish actor at least! He was also in a movie called “Headhunters” a couple years ago. I bet you would really like it!

      • Davide Perretta

        Yeah I just found out, I checked his Wikipedia 🙂
        Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve heard of Headhunters and been meaning to check it out. It looks good!

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