In the new supernatural horror movie "Mama," two young girls are rescued from a cabin in the woods, where they've apparently lived for years in a kind of feral isolation. Of course, once they're returned to civilization and into the loving arms of their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of "Game of Thrones") and his understandably wary girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, who just won a Golden Globe for "Zero Dark Thirty"), spooky things start to happen.
The executive producer of "Mama" is Guillermo del Toro, the extremely talented filmmaker who directed both "Hellboy" films and the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth"—the man knows a thing or two about what goes bump in the night. (His next feature, "Pacific Rim," bows this summer and pits giant robots against Godzilla-esque monsters; the recent trailer would turn even the most hardened cynic into a giddy twelve-year-old child.)
Del Toro was in New York recently to talk about "Mama," and the fundamentals of horror.
"I want to believe there are only two things that work in horror," said del Toro. "There are the things that shouldn't be there but are and the things that should be there but aren't."
As an example, del Toro mentioned the idea of opening your front door, and instead of seeing the street and cars and your neighbors' houses, you saw nothingness.
"Basically, you can derive every example from every horror movie ever from these two simple rules. The rest is playing with the logic of the world as we know it and dislocating it."
Del Toro then made the comparison between horror and comedy – and not just because they are genres that aim to produce a specific response (laughter or screams).
"Horror is like humor – it's a matter of taste," the director said. "It's hard to say what I would not do. I think that the horror film should have no limits. I don't look down at horror movies with graphic violence and gore. I don't make movies like that but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist. In humor, as in horror, you can never go too far."
But it wasn't the horror or the floating ethereal monsters that got del Toro excited about "Mama." It was the original short film, by Spanish commercial director Andy Muschietti (who he retained as the director of the feature), and the idea of presenting women in a different light.
"The thing that attracted me to the story was… I have two daughters and I am always looking for ways to portray women in not the most traditional terms," del Toro explained.
At one point in "Mama" Jessica Chastain's character sighs with relief when her pregnancy test turns out negative, not exactly the reaction one expects. "There's a motherhood that's asphyxiating and smothering. And I was interested in seeing a character who was fighting motherhood and the idea that the only role you can have with a child is a mother."
Chastain was, unsurprisingly, totally gung-ho with the approach. "Jessica was more on board with portraying a solidarity between the three women," he said. "When she talks to them, she talks to them like women. They have a really horizontal relationship. I loved the idea of portraying that and the different options in that. And doing it through a fable."
Del Toro also appreciated the fact that the story deviates from the type of conclusion that's become standard fare in horror films.
"The other thing I thought was great was that in the last few minutes of the movie, that it's not about stopping the evil monster. Everyone gets what they want. And it's by their own choice."
"Mama" opens nationwide on Friday.