Short Film Review: Mamá.
Before they collaborated on IT, Andres and Barbara Muschietti made Mamá, a tight little horror film.
Andres Muschietti became one of Hollywood’s hot new horror phenoms with his record breaking adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. Before that, he caught the attention of another acclaimed horror director, Guillermo del Toro. In 2012, his ultra short horror film Mamá, produced in collaboration with his sister Barbara (who would also act as producer on both IT chapters), got lavish praise from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Based on that short, del Toro signed up to produce a feature length adaptation of the premise in 2013. This week, we’ll take a look at both films and trace the foundations of horror’s new big name.
A young girl is woken up by her frightened sister. While she tries to brush her off, she instantly jumps out of bed when she hears her sister’s news: “Mom is back.”
Keeping You Off Balance.
Keeping the tension of the film taught involves walking a tightrope. The film is only two and a half minutes long. You need to get some semblance of the premise out there quickly, but in a horror film much of the suspense comes from judiciously ladling out reveals. Muschietti accomplishes this with ambiguity and camera angles that keep you guessing. The first scene has the girl sound asleep, her face and body in focus, taking up three quarters of the screen. The sliver of screen left is the open door, which is out of focus. When her sister comes in, it is backwards, moving erratically and even keeling over right before bobbing back up to whisper in her sister’s ear. Before we see her face, she could be anything. Is she a threat to the sleeping girl? Is she a victim of some other threat, falling over with an injury? What does her line mean, Mom is back? Is the mother abusive, or something even worse?
The film keeps this style in the forefront. We nearly always get the first sister in a medium close up, looking over her shoulder. We’re implicitly getting her POV, but the camera is detached enough to follow her line of sight, and even to float away to where her attention is going. The last sliver of screen is always pregnant with tension – what is Muschietti going to pop into that slice of frame to scare us?
In IT’s DNA.
There is some CG work in this short, and it feels very much cut from the same cloth as the creature work in IT. I was impressed for two reasons. First, the visuals were solid. You could have popped this creation into the first IT movie and it would have felt at home. It may not have been the most memorable of the creatures…but it would have been better than that mummy! Second, Muschietti doesn’t relegate it to a jump scare. Sure, it lurks at the periphery and makes sudden movements, but the camera is also allowed to linger on it. You expect such a short film to rely mostly on gimmicky scares, but this felt more developed, a proper thing to be scared of.
Jumping Off Point.
Mamá is a solid short horror film. It manages to foreground lots of questions while effectively delivering its scares. I can see why it captivated del Toro and led Muschietti to revisit it in a feature length treatment. I’m interested in seeing how much of this premise crosses over into that project, and again how both shed light on the director’s personal style. From what I’ve seen so far of his work, he seems consistently good at using the experiences of childhood and creepy digital creations to create a scary good time.