In 1725, some German peasants captured in the woods a boy of roughly twelve years. Peter the Wild Boy, as he came to be known, was dirty, unkempt, without any language, and without any manners. No parents or relations claimed him. He was a feral stray.
So the intellectual community was given an example of a human who had no experience of civilization. Unfortunately, Peter seems to have suffered from a Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a genetic problem which may have limited his ability to learn even when tutored. This made using Peter’s case as a basis for generalizations about the effects of civilization very complicated.
The new horror film “Mama,” about two young sisters found after five years alone, living in the woods, can’t get at these issues either, but for a different reason. Novice director Andres Muschietti, who also collaborated on the screenplay, isn’t really interested in the most prominent idea raised by his own concept for the film. This student of Guillermo del Toro (one of the movie’s producers) is really only interested in the way things look on the big screen.
So “Mama” looks dark and almost damp all the way through. To start off, the girls, then three and five, are loaded into a car by their madman father. He drives them into the woods, trying to escape capture for having, a radio report suggests, shot a couple of people earlier in the day, one of them his wife. Naturally the car slides off the ill-traveled road and down deep into a forest.
Walking, the three family members find an apparently abandoned house. As he gets ready to murder his own girls, Pop is offed by something that looks like a black, filmy shawl.
Over the next five years the shawl apparently takes a basic sort of care of the girls, feeding them cherries from some mysterious store. Then two Darrells hired by their neo-hippy uncle find the kids. They are taken to a psychiatric hospital for inspection and fattening and are then released into his custody over the objections of their maternal aunt.
Unc has a live-in girlfriend, Anabelle, played by Jessica Chastain who is suddenly famous after her turn in “Zero Dark Thirty.” She looks wrong as the Punk Rock bass-player, but she is loyal and shows some sense in allowing her relationship with the originally stand-offish girls to grow. The girls are followed to the new house by the shawl, which seems to appear first as fast-growing mildew which eventually spews moths.
The older girl, Victoria, may remember her uncle a little. The younger girl, Lilly, eventually warms to Anabelle. This makes the shawl, which the girls call “Mama,” jealous. It attacks Unc, who falls down stairs and into a coma. While he’s out, he gets a dream message from him dead brother, the madman.
There are lots of dream messages in “Mama,” but most of them don’t mean anything. The explanation of the shawl’s existence is pretty silly. The field trip of the psychiatrist made little sense. The 130 year-old dead baby story didn’t make any. And, then, the movie will do things like introducing a forbidding archivist to make pronouncements like the one about a ghost being a historic event twisted “out of shape.” These really don’t really help at all.
But the junior high aged kids attending the movie the night I saw it were having a great time as the movie ran. The girls screamed at almost every opportunity. The opportunities were all visual. “Mama” is around to be seen. Its makers really don’t seem to care if it makes any sort of sense.
This is too bad from my point of view. I’m too old to scream every time a black shawl puffs up to wreak vengeance. I’m more interested in what we can learn about “human nature” by seeing how folks behave when there is no civilization around to shape their actions, a question way beyond what the del Toros of the world want to consider with film.