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Super natural

Why you shouldn't be scared of Mama



Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Orphan and The Ring are just a handful of films that indulge in the evil children trope. We Need to Talk About Kevin—one I have yet to see—might be an even more horrific example of that sub-genre, only because Kevin's evilness is more plausible than a child literally possessed by the devil. Either way, let's not recommend any of these films to pregnant women.

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Mama, a film produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), is a little bit different. Perhaps soon-to-be parents should avoid it, but there are lessons to be learned in this one. Mama is less about evil children and more about evil parents, in particular a sinister ghost mother who has a penchant for slithering through different dimensions via black cracks in the walls. Two children encounter her in a cabin in the woods after escaping a car wreck. A few years later, the children are discovered by a search party. By this time they've apparently been raised by "Mama" on cherries and moths, and they scramble around on all fours in that unnatural herky-jerky way you see in stop-motion scenes made popular in Japanese horror flicks. Of course this means that it's a long road to recovery for the children once they're found. Their uncle, played by the hunksome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau ("Game of Thrones"), and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) try to normalize the girls, but how far can you get in therapy when a jealous ghoulish mother keeps loitering in the closet?

Del Toro loves his maternal figures. In Pan's Labyrinth, Carmen, a mother protects her protagonist daughter, Ofelia, against a cruel stepfather. In The Orphanage, which he produced, a woman ends up caring for ghost children at a macabre orphanage. In Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Katie Holmes plays the girlfriend to a man whose daughter is plagued by scary fairies (similar to the girl in Pan's Labyrinth). Holmes' character starts out reluctant and eventually becomes the girl's protectorate—with extreme consequences. Chastain in Mama is also a reluctant girlfriend. She's a young-at-heart rocker chick who isn't even sure she wants to be part of a family unit, let alone a mentor to two disturbed children. Her boyfriend, the girls' uncle, is quickly sidelined early on in the movie—put in the hospital by a near-death encounter with "Mama." The rest of the film becomes a battle of wills between two unlikely mothers, Chastain and the evil spirit. I don't know if you'd call it a feminist streak, but Del Toro's maternal characters and daughter protagonists, whether their fates end in some grim sacrifice or glorious triumph, are always tougher than a two-dollar steak and ballsier than their male counterparts.

Watching the trailer to Mama made me shudder; it was hair-raising. Del Toro knows how to make you squirm the way he conjures up the creatures of our nightmares. But watching the film in its entirety reminded me of another thing I love about Del Toro-associated films: His fairytale aesthetic takes the edge off. Mama is more like Labyrinth or Legend than it is Saw. It's both terrifying and beautiful.

I saw Mama on opening night at the Carmike 12. At almost nine months pregnant, I wasn't unaware of how crazy it might be to expose myself to parenting horrors. The first real fright was finding myself in a theater surrounded by 13-year-old girls (Mama is rated PG-13) who unleashed bloody screams every minute like we were all at a slumber party. Someday I will have one of these screaming teenage girls living in my home—the horror! But as I watched the film, as I enjoyed the scare, I began to appreciate it for Del Toro's fascinating take on motherhood. Here we have a rocker chick girlfriend whose cool identity is only amplified by her willingness to battle ghosts. And there's a mother, "Mama," who, however gruesome she is, loves her children so much she'll travel through death and time and space to keep them. Then there's the badass children, two girls unafraid of the world—the perfect role models for a theater of screamy teens who may or may not become mothers one day, but who might do well to take Del Toro's no-fear message to heart.

Mama continues at the Carmike 12 and Village 6.

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