As Andy Muschietti preps to adapt Stephen King’s It, let’s revisit his debut feature.
In less than three minutes, Andy Muschietti and sister Barbara Muschietti established themselves as forces to be reckoned with in the horror genre courtesy of the 2008 short film Mama. In the short, two young girls get out of bed and go downstairs to find a truly nightmarish entity in their home, and when he saw it, Guillermo del Toro was so impressed and terrified that he knew he had to help turn the simple concept into a feature. So he used his power to do just that.
Five years later, the del Toro-produced Mama opened in the top spot at the domestic box office, but three years after that, I can’t help but feel that the film has never quite gotten the respect it deserves from the horror crowd. And it deserves a whole lot of respect.
Dark even for a horror film, Mama begins in the wake of a man murdering his wife and business partners amid the financial crisis of 2008. Afterwards, he drives his two young daughters to a remote cabin where he intends on killing them too, but the horrific plan goes awry when a strange entity shows up and saves the girls. Several years later, the deceased man’s brother tracks down the sisters, who had been living in the woods all those years, and he and his girlfriend adopt them. Happy family, right? Not exactly. Because Mama wants the kids all for herself.
We eventually learn that “Mama” is the vengeful spirit of Edith Brennan, a mentally disturbed young woman who escaped an asylum in the 1800s and jumped to her death off a cliff, her own baby in her arms. As it turns out, the baby got caught on a branch on the way down, and so Edith entered the afterlife without her child in tow. After spending decades wandering the woods and looking for her baby, she came across sisters Victoria and Lilly, taking them under her wing as if they were her own.
And she’s not letting go without a fight.
Boiled down to its essence, I suppose you could call Mama a haunted house movie, but it’s because of the ambitious and emotionally-charged storytelling that it’s something more than just another spooky tale about just another haunted house. A custody battle by way of a supernatural horror film, Mama is primarily centered on the struggle between a living woman who doesn’t really want children and a dead woman who will stop at nothing to get them, and it’s this key idea that makes the film so very compelling.
On the living side, a pre-superstardom Jessica Chastain is Annabel, who has reluctantly agreed to play the mother role for feral sisters Victoria and Lilly. The character is immediately established as the sort of young woman who can’t even bear the thought of being a mother – in an early scene, Annabel’s day is made when she learns she’s not pregnant – making her the complete antithesis of everything Edith stood for in life and especially stands for in death. Annabel is a very interesting character for this sort of story, and her arc from budding rockstar to loving mother is the heart that beats at the center of the film.
And then there’s Edith Brennan, aka “Mama,” who is unquestionably one of the most unsettling horror villains to haunt the big screen in the past ten years. Looking more like a Xenomorph than a human being, Mama is visually stunning in the most nightmarish of ways, and that’s thanks in no small part to yet another creepy performance from Javier Botet. The distorted facial appliance, combined with Botet’s unnatural movements, proves to be the recipe for a tragic horror villain that will endure and continue to terrify for years to come. How many modern horror movies can stake that claim?
It sends chills up my spine just thinking about the sounds Mama makes.
If it feels like a traditional haunted house film during the second act, and indeed it does at times, Mama firmly establishes itself as the twisted fairytale it most definitely is when it comes time to wrap up the story. The finale, fittingly set on the edge of the very same cliff Edith jumped off of many years prior, boldly achieves a sort of fantastical beauty that calls to mind the work of both Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, and with it Muschietti proves that he’s a visionary filmmaker of the highest order. He’s also a filmmaker who’s not afraid to see a story through to its logical conclusion, no matter how dark he has to go in order to do that – the film ends with Mama grabbing Lilly and jumping off the cliff, ending her own pain and killing the young girl.
When Mama’s body literally explodes into hundreds of black moths upon impact, there’s simply no denying that Andy Muschietti’s debut feature is less a run-of-the-mill horror film and more a striking piece of dark art. In more ways than one, it’s quite unlike anything you’d ever expect to see in a Hollywood-made horror film, and though there may be some familiarity inherent to the proceedings, Mama is altogether the sort of creative and boldly original genre effort that us fans are so often begging for. Backed by a compelling story and full of genuinely terrifying imagery, it’s a gem that more than deserves a second look from those who maybe didn’t appreciate it the first time around – I know I didn’t, and I sure as hell do now.
If Mama is any indication, we’re all in for a real treat with Muschietti’s It.