.In this Halloween edition of Numéro Cinq at the Movies, we have Andres Muschietti’s Mama (2008). Turn the lights out, turn the sound up, put some headsets on, and enjoy.
The plot is simple and yet leaves gobs of story unexplored, haunting the plot we do get: two children are tormented by a terrifying mother; we never find out the origins of this terror and we don’t find out what becomes of the children. This tip of the iceberg approach to storytelling gives the piece a depth that makes it even more terrifying for all the unimaginable horrors we are left to imagine.
What’s scary here is firstly archetypal and secondly uncanny. Mama is the archetypal bad mother that lurks behind the good mother archetype, waiting to consume, torment, and dismember instead of nurture. Like the one daughter, we are drawn to the figure of Mama, because she promises to fulfill the maternal role, but soon we understand their trepidation. This mother is not up for baking cookies.
She’s also uncanny here thanks to a couple of very successful horror techniques. Mama, though human in form and thus familiar, is unfamiliar because of her movements. The head tilted to the side, the contorting, jerking motions of her limbs and the speed of her movements are all unfamiliar. Similar effects were used in the horror film the The Ring when the monstrous young girl climbs out of the television. To achieve this effect they shot the actress in reverse with exaggerated movements so that when they played the footage forward her gestures seemed insect like and inhuman. This is Freud’s Uncanny: both familiar and unfamiliar and disturbing all around.
When this short film came out three years ago it created so much of a buzz that Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro – known for his popular Hellboy type fare and his more art house type horror films like Pan’s Labyrinth – decided to take Muschietti under his producing / mentoring wing and turn the film into a feature-length terror. Del Toro similarly mentored / produced the The Orphanage (2007).
Under the guidance and producing skills of Del Toro, Mama will star Nikolaj Cosyt-Waldau (Game of Thrones) and Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) as a couple who adopts the children who are the protagonists of the short film after they are discovered in a forest, only to find that they were never entirely alone there. The film is marked as currently in production and slated for a 2012 release.
Mama could be well nurtured under Del Toro. Though his body of work contains other interests, he does seem to continuously come back to horror tales involving children. These aren’t scary tales for kidlets, but terrifying tales where adult audiences perceive the horror through a child’s eyes. His film The Devil’s Backbone is a beautiful ghost story set in a boy’s orphanage (and I am a sucker for any story that has an unexploded bomb lodged in the centre of it waiting to go off).
His Pan’s Labyrinth follows a young girl struggles to avoid / negotiate / overcome awfully adult stuff.
These young protagonists offer us vicarious innocence, imagination, and vulnerability. Through them we can access the time and place when we were afraid of monsters under the bed. And this device might be all the more powerful if the monster under the bed is Mama, the very person who should protect us.