This weekend, Warner Bros. is kicking off the Fall movie season with the highly anticipated adaptation of author Stephen King’s It, brought to life by Andy Muschietti. As we gear up for this new entry in the realm of horror, let’s travel back in time to 2013, when Muschietti released his directorial debut, Mama, based on his short film of the same name. Then, this weekend, we can all experience the terrors of Pennywise together once again.
On the day their parents die, sisters Lilly and Victoria vanish in the woods, prompting a frantic search by their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Five years later, miraculously, the girls are found alive in a decaying cabin, and Lucas and Annabel welcome them into their home. But, as Annabel tries to reintroduce the children to a normal life, she finds that someone — or something — still wants to tuck them in at night.
Right off the bat, the first sign that indicated I was about to watch something special was when I noticed Guillermo Del Toro served as the film’s executive producer. Unlike most filmmakers who attach themselves to a project as a producer for the paycheck, Del Toro typically only does it if he has genuine passion for these stories and the talent behind them. That sort of confidence is quite infectious, as it gives the audience something to look forward to.
This strong creative team is supported by an equally strong cast. Mama is led by Jessica Chastain, who is usually great in everything. She is especially strong when asked to do most of the heavy lifting. Her character had one of the biggest arcs onscreen, as I truly believed her chemistry with these two orphan girls, played brilliantly by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, through the time she spends taking care of them. The physicality of these child actors really impressed me, as they were able to effectively pull off certain barbaric mannerisms from living on their own in the forest for five years that would have been difficult even for older actors to deliver. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays a pair of identical twins: Jeffrey Desange, the father of Victoria and Lilly, and Lucas, their uncle and new legal guardian. Admittedly, his was one of the weaker performances in the movie, but that is only because he wasn’t necessarily the focus. Instead, the focus was primarily on Annabel, the Desange girls, and their confrontations with Mama.
Speaking of Mama, the titular antagonist requires her own section. It took a village to bring this character to life, starting with Javier Botet doing the physical performance. Diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome at a young age, this actor uses his abnormal physical traits to his advantage through his creepy and unsettling performance. These types of characters seem to be his specialty, playing other memorable monsters such as The Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2, the Xenomorph from Alien: Covenant, and he is now set to star as the eponymous Slender Man in its movie next year. As for the voice of Mama, she is portrayed by a handful of actresses, including Laura Guiteras, Melina Matthews, Hannah Cheesman, and Jane Moffat. The visual effects team also deserves high praise for all they did to enhance Botet’s performance. I can’t say that the effects were always perfect, but how else would they have executed certain details like her long flowing hair and some of her more grotesque body contortions without a dedicated effects team?
Andy Muschietti is certainly a name worth remembering for years to come. It’s easy to see why Del Toro was championing this director, since they both have a similar visual aesthetic that’s best suited for these darker stories. Most modern horror directors (at least the mainstream ones) don’t exactly have what it takes to deliver the kind of scares you see here, relying a little too much on jump scares and loud musical cues to do all the work. That’s not to say there are no jump scares here, it’s just that they’re supported by atmosphere and images that leave a lasting impression. I can see why this director was chosen to helm the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It. I’m already terrified of combining Muschietti’s macabre sensibilities with the fairly universal fear of clowns.
Unfortunately, as much as I praise Muschietti’s directing, writing is this film’s biggest weakness. I was hooked by the story almost immediately during the first third, and the climax was just as gripping if not more so. The middle was where things started to drag. This isn’t a problem unique to Mama, as most horror films seem to struggle keeping the middle as engaging as the rest of the film. I get that there were some story beats that needed to be hit, such as learning the truth about Mama’s backstory. I just wish the exposition was handled better, but, I guess, that’s why you have a character like Dr. Gerard Dreyfuss.
Mama, while rough around the edges, was a fantastic feature film debut for a director who’s showing a lot of potential. I hope Andy Muschietti earns as much critical acclaim as his mentor Guillermo Del Toro, becoming a household name in his own right. I’m certainly more excited now to check out Stephen King’s It when it opens tomorrow night.
Michael’s Score: 8.5/10