Of course the fact that this is a "produced by" film should raise the usual concerns with people, why does it need to be highlighted by the producer over and above everything and everyone else involved in the film? Well that's a good question.
Mama is written by Andrés and Barbara Muschietti and is based on the short film Mamá which Andrés wrote and directed and Barbara produced. The film version is also written by Neil Cross who created and wrote for the excellent BBC television series Luther as well as writing on Doctor Who and Spooks.
Looking back over all those names above surely that's enough to be mentioned before the "produced by" credit?
Mama begins really well with a great style and leaping straight into the story. We're thrown straight into what seems like the end of a story but it is actually the explanation of how the children are left alone in the woods.
From the very beginning we're shown dynamism and a palpable tension starting the psychological thriller from almost the first words we hear and building to a crescendo which feels like a satisfying short film in itself, perhaps the short film that this is all based on. The consequence of this is that the audience are set-up wonderfully for the film, showing the audience how strong the suspense, horror and scares are going to be as well as how it will side towards creepiness rather than all out scares and just how good the film will look. It also sets the bar high for the rest of the film to attain to, and that's a good thing to see this early on.
The opening sequence does something else rather surprising and that shows us Mama. Cleverly it doesn't reveal too much but by the close we know about the mysterious secret the girls keep and what it is capable of. It's given a real sense of being, as in it clearly isn't something imagined or ethereal - it is solid, quick and very dangerous.
Right from that opening shot we see plenty of panning cameras as they move us through the scenes and this continues for some time. It does give the film, which you might have thought was going to be a traditional horror a much more cinematic experience. This carries through the film and it made me aware of how good the film looked and how it was definitely a clear step above the average in its genre, and I don't just mean in the camera work and the framing but through the effects, the lighting, the cinematography as a whole. All these aspects elevate the film.
That said the effects for Mama do stand out particularly, they are fantastically visualised and her appearances on screen are kept to a minimum, timed to heighten the tension and build the suspense for the bigger reveals. There have been some really cleverly thought through scenes including Mama, or rather not including her, scenes where her involvement doesn't mean a reveal and this adds so much to the film.
Instead of big shock moments after stretched out moments of quiet there is subtlety and a slow build to the creature, of course there are a few moments which are a little more stock but they too have been crafted differently and with more impact. With Mama they have the balance almost perfect and keep plenty of mystery right to the final scenes without spoiling the impact.
The film and the way the creature was shown reminded me of classic Japanese horror merged with a strong European thriller and given a bigger Hollywood effects budget, and I mean that comparison in a reverential and complimentary way.
The effects are not all just for the creature though and the car crash near the opening shows more of what the film has to offer in that department. This isn't some huge and showy crash with a big multiple explosion, it looks and feels real, slowly out of control and a straightforward accident. Again this small scene sets a precedent for the film's tone and style.
As you have probably already guessed there's a strong sense of style that comes from the film early on and it does indeed carry on all the way to the closing credits. It also doesn't forget why it's there and it delivers a great deal of tension building a strong thriller and it does this without forgetting the horror, a fact that I feel so many mainstream horror films fail to do.
There are good scares in that horror and not always the standard ones you expect. Even when the film resorts to one of these standard ones the execution of it is delivered with a different twist and almost always combined with a superbly paced build. There are also plenty scenes that give you the expected build up and don't deliver that final moment, letting the audience off the hook but building the anticipation for the next such scene. These all work really well together and even managed to get the more seasoned horror fans experiencing a few surprise moments of sudden leaps. There are many examples of this throughout the film but two that come to mind are the head suddenly appearing over the shoulder and the beginning of the children's big chase sequence in the house. These both worked really well but they also highlighted an issue I felt with some of the film, particularly the scary moments, that of the score.
While the build-up, the set-up, the execution and the delivery, or the failure to deliver of these moments are very well written and brought to the screen I did find the score rather overpowering at times and I felt that this was the one area that went the traditional route. With so many Hollywood horror films it is often the score that carries the scare, causing the jump as the sudden burst of orchestral activity forces the audience's surprise or the rising volume to the crescendo instructs the viewer how they should be reacting. Unfortunately this happens quite a few times in Mama. Not only does it happen a little too much but it was really noticeable in places and it completely took over the moment for me.
Out with the scary set-ups and scenes I wondered a couple of times if the orchestra was going to calm down a little and back down. It doesn't overpower the film, just a couple of scenes, but I remember a few times feeling this way when I should be invested in the film.
While the story plays well, the creature is well handled on and off screen and the psychological thriller side of the horror powers on above everything else, the third act did delve into the stock box of horror and come out with some character decisions and actions that had me scratching my head in wonder. There had been so much care and attention spent on all the other aspects of the film I really struggled with the poor third act decisions. Here we see three characters, two of which are the main characters themselves, wander off to the deep forest in the middle of the night, knowing that there is something other worldly going on and without telling anyone what they are up to. It's the classic going up into the loft one at a time and I was shocked to find that these characters were actually doing it in this film.
Not only that but it gets more contrived when the third character heads off on their loft journey, although they seem to have slightly better reasoning for their jaunt than the previous two, they nearly run over one of the other characters on a random deserted road in the middle of the darkened forest. I snorted in disbelief at this point as contrived is really not the word for this terribly stock and poorly handled sequence of events.
It even got a little worse following this as we are treated to a quick exchange to explain everything away and get moving towards the ultimate ending of the film. I couldn't help but feel as though we had raced through the story in favour of a Scooby-Doo catch up scene.
Still it got us to the ending that we needed to be at and this ending does deliver much more and with an unexpected turn of events. I really thought it did well to change things up and deliver something that was not so stock Hollywood horror. While it did deliver resolution and some happiness it also delivered an unexpected sadness and a few unanswered questions too. This was far from your Disney ending that you might be expecting to see, especially after those lost in the woods scenes.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is very good in the film and offers quite the surprise early on. He's such a strong actor and has been proving his worth in many a film. You may actually be surprised to see some of the films he's starred in from Black Hawk Down to Wimbledon, but it was his recent starring role in Headhunters (Filmstalker Review) that I think helped to get him noticed and a superb role in the television series Game of Thrones and now of course Mama. He's extremely natural and believable, even when he's up against the most unbelievable.
Jessica Chastain is equally as strong as she delivers a strong performance for her character that seems a fair distance from that of the agent in Zero Dark Thirty (Filmstalker review) and she is so easy to watch in this role. However I think the most praise has to go to the two children who play the abandoned daughters, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse who are both charming and at times very creepy. Charpentier is particularly strong as she plays a range on her character that a lot of grown up actresses would struggle to cope with, she goes from the feral child to an almost normal one, understanding and coping with some incredibly difficult situations both in character and as an actress. She was fantastic.
I have to admit to being surprised by this film, a film that is stamped with the "produced by" credit isn't usually a strong sign but with Mama it's actually the weakest link. Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are all superb in front of the camera and their characters are far from the usual flat horror characters we see, despite the lazily written run up to the finale.
What sets Mama apart from most horror films is the fact that it doesn't leap in and reveal too much, even well into the film it keeps us away from what is behind the title instead giving us glimpses and building the mystery making every moment it is close to the screen that much more tense and giving the final reveal much more power. The story, again apart from the build up to the finale, doesn't follow the stock path and has some surprises even for the horror jaded among the audience. It has been cleverly written and brought to the screen and the desire to leap forward to the big sell moments has been tempered in favour of building the characters and their stories, and that pays off really well.
The film looks great and it is clear that the budget hasn't been blown on the talent. The cinematography is strong and provides for atmospheric locations and eye capturing scenes such as the car crash itself or almost all of the scenes involving the children. It's clear the film has been put together by someone who has a strong visual eye and a team who pay careful attention to making the effects seem very real and natural with their surroundings. Pulling all these aspects together makes for a very strong film which is first and foremost a psychological thriller with powerful scares and surprises crafted well into the story.
My only concerns with the film come at a few certain points where the score takes over a little too much or where the story does falter and drop into the mundane and stock. The latter only occurs in one real place in the build up to the finale and it stands out from the rest of the film but it's easy to deal with as the film moves onto the non-stock ending.