With a track record including The Orphanage and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Guillermo del Toro's best medium is the horror film. Mama is his most recent work, and it does him justice.
If you're familiar with del Toro's horror work, you will know that a particular focus of his is children, particularly abandoned or lost children. This film is no exception, and is perhaps one of the more obvious examples of a child's worst fear: losing your parents.
The film follows Lucas (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, otherwise known as Jaime Lannister) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) as they take care of Lucas' orphaned nieces, Lilly and Victoria. The little girls were found five years after going missing, and have turned completely feral. This is a bigger problem with the younger sister Lilly, who at first eats moths, walks on all fours, and refuses to sleep in a bed. This becomes an important character point by the end of the film.
It is mentioned early on in the film that its a miracle that the girls survived so long, but by this point the audience already knows that they were not alone. Because of this, a lot of the film is a very effective waiting game - when will Lucas and Annabel find out what and who really took care of the children? And what are the consequences of the children being removed from their remote cabin and unlikely guardian?
The suspense is remarkably done, to the extent that at times I had to cover my face, and I am a horror movie veteran. However, I am a fan of never showing the supernatural force, and towards the end we see so much of it that the horror drains away somewhat. Thankfully, it's replaced by a different kind of fear, as well as a conclusion that you just don't expect from a film like this. Then again, del Toro does enjoy unconventional endings.
One thing that must be mentioned is the exemplary acting of these two children, Megan Charpentier playing older sister Victoria and Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly. You expect brilliance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain, and you get it (especially since Coster-Waldau plays twin brothers who are very different characters), but so much of the plot and screen time focuses on the two girls that their acting becomes the lynchpin of the whole film.
The film was inspired by this short, and it's creator Andrés Muschietti was involved in writing and producing the full-length version -- a very good decision.
Mama competes with Sinister for the best horror film I've seen in recent times: impeccable acting, unbearable tension, decent scares and a heart-wrenching twist at the end.
Watch the trailer yourself here: