Oftentimes, it seems as if films "presented by" directors take that approach solely to draw attention to emerging talents and generate theater turnout, but this isn't exactly the case for the works touted by Guillermo Del Toro, where he often serves as an active producer. Between The Orphanage and now Andrés and Barbara Muschietti's Mama, his fingerprints -- entrancing visuals, robust characters, and eerie atmosphere -- can clearly be spotted and noticeably elevate the creations under his wing, while allowing the respective directors' viewpoints to shine through. The inspiration for this particular fable of absent parentage and looming secrets is a three-minute short by the Muschiettis, featuring a disturbing, gangly-armed "mother" who stomps after two children in a dimly-lit home. Extended into a warped study of unlikely mothers and spectral guardians that look over feral daughters, this is a flawed, slight, yet consistently haunting parable that wouldn't appear out-of-place among its presenter's own work.
Mama goes down that well-worn path of dark and quixotic children's horror that Del Toro has brought somewhat to the mainstream, depicting a pair of sisters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), left to fend for themselves in a forested cottage following a car accident. Thought to be lost, but not without being sought by their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), the girls are rediscovered five years later in that same cottage -- filthy, crawling like animals, and detached from normal emotion and maturity. Despite offers to take the children into more suitable custody, Lucas maintains a stern desire to keep the girls, despite not really having the means to do so. A solution arises in a house built for psychological evaluation, where Lucas and his prickly rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), would look after them while they're under continuous evaluation by psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). A question remains, though: how were the girls able to care for themselves in the wild, and who is this nonexistent "mama" they say looked after them?
Annabel provides a necessary dimension to the story in the form of a headstrong bass player who isn't really built for the domestic-parent lifestyle, or, at the very least, isn't ready for it at this point in her life. She's an interesting challenge for Jessica Chastain: harsher, resistant, driven less by empathy and optimism than her other name-making roles. But she's also crucial to the dramatic backbone supporting the spook tactics to come in Mama; Annabel's ability to adapt to the situation, and her growing pains while trying to be a stand-in mother to oddly-behaving daughters, jumps between frustration with parenting to a young(er) rocker's decision whether to endure the situation or not. Unlike other up-and-coming actresses who fall prey to horror-suspense films that don't do their careers any favors, Chastain not only enhances what's otherwise a contrived slate of scenarios, she becomes crucial to both the eeriness and emotional purpose that the Muschiettis eventually aim for.
The complicated maternal setup works well once the scares emerge in Mama (and once Annabel is forced to care for the girls by herself), providing a levelheaded opportunity for Andrés and Barbara Muschietti's ideas to unnervingly creep out of the shadows. Steadily, we learn what's followed Victoria and Lilly from the cottage, and the role ... it served in their life while they were secluded for five years. Their ethereal little secret avoids our field of vision through clever plays on perspective that Antonio Riestra's cinematography achieves -- namely, the mischievous framing of multiple rooms within one shot, relishing who's in each and who isn't. The spacious, creak-and-slam-friendly house provides corners and corridors for Annabel to creep herself out in, while flickering lights and guitar amplifier feedback rattle the nerves through a few unnecessary but heart-thumping parlor tricks. Conventional jump-scares and glimpses into shadowy spaces end up appearing too orthodox for such a distinctive and straight-faced supernatural mystery, but they're polished, austere, and maintain a marvelously macabre atmosphere that begs for "mama" to make its mysterious presence known, a mix of curiosity and trepidation.
Written by the Muschiettis and television scribe Nick Cross, the script sustains its supernatural purposes by focusing on a mystery to be solved about the girls' elusive guardian, as they tiptoe around the evil stirring in the house; in fact, it's rather compelling on those simple terms. Once it goes any deeper than that, though, Mama becomes harder to take seriously. Dark, decaying magical holes in walls, creepy moths, and household accidents deal out visceral scenarios more concerned with unnerving the audience with arty horror instead of allowing the drama to keep a level head. What's more, the characters have that age-old fascination with sleuthing at night just so the darkness can cheaply draw them into powerlessness. Chastain's performance and the undertones about an evolving maternal bond beckon those watching to grasp what's going on, empathize, and care about their well-being -- which does work -- but getting wrapped up in those intentions becomes difficult when the characters are corralled into plot-rigged traps.
Mama struggles to right an uneven balance between inspiration and creative prudence all the way to the conclusion -- a bold, devious, but bizarrely forced culmination on a craggy moonlit bluff, underscored by maternal instincts and the eerie mystery that unraveled alongside the scares. While this is an unapologetic supernatural hybrid of horror and melodrama from start to finish, the melancholy ending crosses a line in both emotionally-charged and unsatisfying ways, plagued with the rough kind of ambiguity that provokes somber questions about the outcome and mandatory moral grayness. Andrés Muschietti's film achieves a suitable evolution of Annabel's nature against a supernatural force of domineering parenthood, where stark atmosphere both weathers and warms her, but it comes remarkably close to undermining the effort in one fell swoop of forced misinterpretations and last-minute empathy. It's a good thing, then, that the atmosphere works so well leading right up to it.
Mama creeps onto Blu-ray in Universal's now-customary two-disc presentation: Disc One being the Blu-ray; Disc Two being the DVD/Digital Copy. The design on the front cover, which carries over to the inner package, is really slick: it's a modified play on a scene from the film. Grimy, shiny textures adorns the slipcover in ways kinda similar to the black magic holes in the film, rendering an eerie cover that befits it better than one might expect. Sadly, the inside is standard, bland fare, with an Ultraviolet slip tossed in for added value.
Video and Audio:
Warm olives and tans, chilly blues, and aggressive shadows craft the mood for Mama, framed at 1.85:1 for a taller, immersive field of vision while moving around a haunted house and desolate cabin. Universal's 1080p AVC Blu-ray understands the atmosphere's nuance and desolate artistic perspective: the unsettling, brown-leaning warmth of the house maintains its attitude without sacrificing natural shifts in palette or detail. A lot of close-ups give our eyes plenty to do while darting around to different textures, from the exceptionally-detailed weave on Victoria's sleeve as Lilly hides behind her to the rough, haunting sketches on the girls' bedroom walls. The black levels can be aggressive, perhaps excessively so, but rarely without justification on a scene-to-scene basis. It's a dark film, as expected, but there are some exceptional moments of eye-opening clarity -- a fox statue, the girls' approach to their new home, and Chastain's profile while evil stirs in the background -- that make it exceptional.
The 5-channel Master Audio track is a beast, both because it's occasionally rather aggressive and the way it handles faint, environmental details that embellish its haunted-house attitude. Despite being a more artistically-inclined piece of work, Mama still runs the gamut of aural elements typically found in the genre: flickering lights, stomping feet, and the slamming of doors test the surround stage's ability to sprawl and slam with the best of them, and it's up to the task. Sounds of amplifier feedback and harsh fluttering moth wings remain consistently edgy and dynamic, while the eerie ethereal ambience and moans of the ghostly guardian's presence are unsettlingly clear. But it's also great at creating quiet, measured atmosphere with sharp, natural dialogue and other vocal elements, like the sound of childre n laughing and playing in an upstairs room. If you're splitting hairs, you might find a louder or aggressive sound element that could pack a meatier punch, but overall this is an exceptional horror-driven track. English and Spanish language tracks are available, along with English SDH, Spanish, and French subs.
Audio Commentary with Andrés (Andy) and Barbara Muschietti:
Considering the fact that the Muschiettis are green to the audio commentary game, they do a decent-enough job of maintaining a forward-moving conversational rhythm about the topics they discuss. Del Toro's name gets brought up rather frequently, naturally, revealing the extent of his hands-on approach, and they touch on their own innovative filmmaking techniques: who they modeled Chastain's look on, how they created Mama's wailing, and the blend of digital and practical effect to create their monster. They also get into intense thematic points as well, such as the way characters evolve as the film progresses, and certain scenes that almost didn't make the final cut. They do have quiet gaps and the tempo stays very low-key, but listening in on what they elaborate on will provide fans with some great takeaways.
A pair of featurettes further flesh out Mama's conceptualization. The Birth of Mama (9:34, HD) loops together interviews with Guillermo Del Toro, the Muschiettis, and the cast as they discuss all the components that piece together the motivation for the film -- the nature of ghosts, the original short film, and their fascination with fear of the unnatural. Matriarchal Secrets: The Visual Effects of Mama (6:00, HD) takes us both into the digital workshop and the makeup chair for the creation of the film's "abomination", and you'll see exactly how a thin, tall guy (!) embodies Andy Muschietti's original sketches. As is normally the case with these featurettes, the behind-the-scenes footage is equally interesting than the interviews, if not more so, pieced together into fifteen solid minutes of press-kit info. Also included is a series of six Deleted Scenes (7:31, HD) with optional commentary from Andy and Barbara Muschietti, and the original short, Mamá (4:32 w/ intro, HD), with an introduction from Del Toro and optional commentary.
Mama can't quite measure up to other fantasy-horror fables of its breed, but the creepy domestic atmosphere, effective jump-scares, and earnest thematic backbone about the maternal bond are all effective enough to push Andrés and Barbara Muschietti's extension of their three-minute short damn close to the line. Jessica Chastain shoulders the challenge of a different sort of headstrong woman as rocker-turned-guardian Annabel, and she's able to make the most of the uneven drama within this supernatural package. The art design here is somewhat reminiscent of executive producer Guillermo Del Toro's own work, though more restrained, and the story itself provides a distinctive, emotional approach to the haunted-house genre -- which almost causes the film to swan-dive with an electric but overwrought conclusion to the mystery. Horror contrivances and a frustrating ending weigh down its potential, but not without a satisfyingly eerie experience leading up to it. Universal's Blu-ray flexes that atmospheric muscle in robust visual and aural HD clarity, and the extras, though somewhat thin, have a few neat tricks up their sleeves to discover. Strongly Recommended.