The ghost story is the most ritualized card in the horror tarot. The elements of a haunting almost always follow a set path that delves into the sins of the past. There's always a past, pieced together by the protagonists from old newspapers, mouldering town records, or unearthed diaries. Ghosts are most often avatars of past traumas, reliving some private inferno again and again until someone comes along to appease them. Or not. A friend of mine doesn't like ghost stories much. She thinks they're too much of a strait jacket. I dunno. I dig them. Once I accept that the theme is going to be the same as in every other ghost story out there, I can groove on the variations. Ghost stories have been enjoying a renaissance in the last fifteen years or so as filmmakers have wedged the tropes of the ghost story into modern, technological settings, fueled by the imagery of the J-horror boom and bust. The latest of these is Mama (2013, directed by Andrés Muschietti), and it's more or less of a piece with other similar movies like The Orphanage or The Possession. The contemporary ghost movie is a glum affair, and this is no different. What IS different with this movie is the way it codes its narrative. It also indulges in stylistic tricks derived from producer Gullermo Del Toro's cinematic legacy.
The story here finds a stockbroker murdering three people on the eve of the 2008 crash, including his wife. He crashes home, gathers up his two young daughters and lights out for the territories. It's the dead of winter, and he skids off the road. He seeks shelter at an abandoned cabin in the woods, but the cabin turns out to be very much inhabited, and the inhabitants don't take kindly to him. He meets a bad end. Five years pass. The stockbroker's brother, Lucas, hasn't given up on finding his nieces. To this end, he's pushed his finances to the limit. He's not well off, by any means. He's a graphic artist and his girlfriend, Annabel is the bassist in a rock band. Not ideal parents, but into their life come the girls, now feral after living for five years on their own with whatever it is in the cabin. The girls' aunt on their mother's side wants to take them in, too, but Lucas and Annabel are insistent on keeping them. Dr. Dreyfus, the psychiatrist on the case, wants them with Lucas and Annabel, too, so he can continue studying them. He offers them the use of a house owned by his institute, rent free. They move in and try to find some normality with the girls. This proves to be difficult. The...entity...that the girls call "Mama" has followed them, and she's jealous. Soon, she puts Lucas in the hospital while Annabel deals with increasingly strange occurrences in the house by herself. Meanwhile, Dr. Dreyfus begins to piece together the back story of "Mama," in all its horror...
I wonder about the influence of producer Guillermo Del Toro on the visuals here. Some of his signatures are all over this film: the fairy tale narrative (the film opens with "once upon a time"), the emphasis on insects, the central role of children in the narrative, even the disquieting ambiguity of the ending. Del Toro had no hand in writing or directing this film, but it fits his brand and I worry that that brand is becoming a cliche. The use of moths to indicate ghostly happenings was used in last year's The Possession, for instance, and seems at second hand here. The best scenes in the movie are variants of that scene in the original version of The Haunting where Eleanor holds a hand in the dark, thinking it's Theo's. In this film, we see clever compositions using partitioned spaces to suggest similar things: in one scene, we see Lily, the youngest child, playing with someone in her room. That someone is off screen and we assume that it's her sister, Victoria, but Victoria enters the screen outside the room. Annabel is visible outside the room, too. So who is Lily playing with? There's a similar scene later when Annabel sees a small pile of clothing move. She assumes it's Lily, but it's neither of the children. The film is on less-sure ground when it's relying on special effects, though at least it has put some thought into designing its primary monster (again, Del Toro's films always emphasize art direction). There is a subtle stylistic effect at the end of the film that seems independent of Del Toro: the climax is black and white. Oh, the film contrives to convince the audience that it's just night time, but even when there's a bright light source in the frame, this remains monochromatic. Black and white seems appropriate for a ghost story and it tends to smooth over the special effects by removing some of their gloss. It's a subtle call out to classic horror cinema predating the splattery modern variety.
A common running theme in recent ghost movies is the security of the nuclear family unit. This is something that dates back at least as far as Poltergeist, maybe farther. The contemporary iteration of this theme often finds families that are fragmented at the outset and come together as a result of the crucible of the narrative, sometimes in the face of serious dysfunction. The variant on display in Mama finds our heroine, Annabel, waiting on a pregnancy test when first we see her and rejoicing at the negative result. By the end of the movie, she's a devoted mother. This strikes me as retrograde, actually, but this is a movie whose theme is motherhood so it's necessary. Motherhood is right there in the title of the film, after all. What's interesting about this, though is that there is no biological link between the children in the film and the mothers who are in conflict over them. This is a film that's constructing alternate family structures. The nuclear family unit is intact, but its composition is dramatically different from the traditional family where shared biology with children unites the members. Then it breaks that apart, too, when it removes Lucas from the picture for most of the film. Annabel then finds herself as the mother figure for two children who are not hers and the act of mothering them makes them hers. Which begs the question: is this film's ghost an unreasonable mother? The ghost mothers the children for five years. Does the act of mothering make the children hers, too? The end of the movie splits the difference in a three way custody conflict between Annabel, Jean (the children's aunt), and the ghost. Some viewers are likely to feel that the end of the movie is sad, but I found it kind of beautiful.
There's a further social coding in this film that I want to touch upon, as well. This is a film that criticizes the notion that wealth equals stability. That Jeffery and Lucas are twins heightens this idea: Jeffery is affluent--wealthy, actually--but he's weak and violent. That he's a stockbroker during the financial meltdown demonizes him. Compare him to Lucas: Lucas is an artist. He's kind and devoted to a fault. Annabel is even further coded as anti-bourgeois by dressing her in punk fashions and by giving her a tattoo sleeve. She has a punky haircut, too, that tends to make Jessica Chastain more earthbound. Her usual Pre-Raphaelite red hair has been replaced by a brunette bob. It works for her. Annabel, too, is an artist, and the movie contrasts her with Jean, the children's aunt, who looks down on her profession. Jean, as performed by Jane Moffat, may be affluent, but the film suggests that she's also cold and willing to manipulate the system to get her way. There's a subtle critique of privilege here. This is a film that values the arts over the pursuit of money. Given that I make my own living in the arts, I respond to all this. The film missteps a bit, I think, by contriving to move Lucas and Annabel and the girls into a huge house. I would love to have seen this play out in a cramped apartment. The old dark house seems a bit lazy, but not cripplingly so.
Chastain is the "it girl" of art house cinema right now. This movie is a bit of a stretch for her, and she's up to it. This is a better, more full-blooded performance from her than what you find in, say, Coriolanus or even The Tree of Life. She's the center of this movie and she's a strong enough actress to anchor the film in human concerns. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau is similarly strong--my god, the bone structure in this movie--though he vanishes from the movie for huge chunks of its running time. Both Chastain and Coster-Waldau bring a certain amount of movie star charisma to the film that isn't usually there in horror movies. In horror movies, the genre itself is usually the star. It's not an unwelcome variation.
So, a cut above the standard contemporary ghost movie, but not transcendent. Subversive to a point, though not so subversive that it really questions the hegemony of the nuclear family. I had a stray thought during a scene mid-film in which Annabel was practicing on her bass that her visual design was borderline queer. I wonder if this film mightn't have worked better if the filmmakers had gone there. Idle fantasy, I suppose.