The plight of the two little girls in Mama reminded me of the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel and Babes in the Woods, a European folk rhyme I’d learnt in school but its entirely possible the film’s debut feature writer Barbara Muschietti and veteran Neil Cross boned up on the backstory of the “wolf children” Kamala and Amala who were found by the missionary Rev. J.A.L Singh in the jungles of West Bengal in 1920.

Film: MAMA

Starring:  Jessica Chastain,

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat

Director: Andres Muschietti

Rousseau’s theory of education posits that a child of nature would be pure and untainted by the influence of society. But wild children like the ones in this film from first-time director Andres Muschietti  and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, ‘The Orphanage’) question this theory.

The thing is Mama highlights the nature-nurture debate. Far from being a kind, reassuring presence, the titular character of this moody, atmosphere-driven horror film is a baleful ghost who won’t let go of tragically orphaned little Victoria (Charpentier) and Lilly (Nelisse). Located by two old hunters in a mouldering cabin the woods, the children are placed in the care of their uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) and his Goth rocker girlfriend Annabel (Chastain, compelling).

In moments of stress, Lucas and some other characters take the name of Jesus in vain (come to think about it, few would call swearing profane, so commonplace and acceptable has it become). And as in most movies of this genre (too many to name barring exceptions like The Exorcist series) the diabolical predominates to the complete exclusion of the divine.

The Bible clearly states that evil spirits exist but they are fallen angels who pretend to be those who have died, and try to convince humans of the same lie that Satan uttered in the garden of Eden…”you surely will not die”. This is why I am disappointed by films in which no one ever seeks God’s intercession. Neither Lucas nor Annabel, the unwilling foster parent who realises she has a maternal streak after all in one of several heart-tugging scenes in the movie.

The subtext of the importance of a nurturing environment is most effectively underlined in harrowing scenes of the children on all fours, poor little Lily who is incapable of human speech, reared as she has been from infancy, in isolation and elder sibling Victoria who mercifully, relearns how to speak.

Beautifully lensed, the film elicits great pity for the traumatised children. Where it falters is in its delineation of the half-crazed father who is driven to murder. But it is at its creepiest when the ghost stalks/haunts dwellings to attack perceived enemies

Overall, the sense of dread and foreboding is enhanced by the art direction and the music. And there are loads of genuine scares in the first half which decrease post-   intermission.

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