Half horror, half fairytale, Mama wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but in retrospect is a bravely imaginative ghost story; one that is not afraid to involve sadness and love as well as unbridled terror. Trading in gore for classic scares, this film is quite old fashioned in its handling of atmosphere and tension, but it pays off, as some scenes are genuinely shocking and leave a lasting impression.
After being abandoned in a forest by their deranged father, two young sisters Victoria and Lily are cared for in a dilapidated cabin by a mysterious figure that they call Mama. Five years go by until someone finds them, feral and dirtied from life in the wilderness, and they are reunited with their uncle Lucas, played by a brilliant Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones fame). He and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) gain custody of the girls and are given a house in which to care for them by Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Things go awry when Lucas is mysteriously injured one night from falling down the stairs, and is sent in to a coma, leaving Annabel to care for the children on her own. Not related to them, and not ready to be a mother, she reluctantly finds herself sole guardian of her boyfriend’s nieces. Unfortunately for her, the figure from the cabin has come back to claim her girls.
Initially, it is the girls themselves who provide the scares, looking decidedly bedraggled, with their hair in their faces, and moving in strange and distorted ways reminiscent of Samara from The Ring. Lily in particular, the younger of the two (who has therefore lived more of her life in the wild) moves around on all fours pausing only to stare in to empty space. Unresponsive and quiet, she seems to react more enthusiastically to Mama. Victoria, on the other hand, is older, and so has memories from before her abandonment to fall back on. She makes more progress and adapts to life in the house far better than her sister. The two child actors who play the girls do amazingly well in such twisted roles, and Isabelle Nélisse in particular is a joy to watch, despite the unnerving nature of the story.
Jessica Chastain does her best with a badly written part. Annabel is the stereotypical “rocker”, wearing a Ramones tshirt and slouching in chairs with an affected bad girl attitude. The script even goes as far as to have her friend tell her that she shouldn’t have this kind of responsibility because she’s “in a rock band”. That’s not to say that her part is dire, just that it could have been fleshed out a little more considering that she becomes so central to the narrative.
Another downside is that the figure of Mama, once revealed, is ever so slightly laughable (in my opinion). It’s been said countless times about horror that it’s best to suggest and not show. As soon as we know exactly what she looks like, this vengeful spirit loses her psychological power and becomes a creepy looking piece of CGI. The film saves itself though with an adventurous ending that I imagine some people may hate, but is absorbing and daring nonetheless.
What starts out as a very typical but entertaining foray into the ghost story genre, ends up as something reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth. It is this originality, at a time when the horror movie is being drained of life by endless found footage films, torture porn, and shameless slasher sequels, that means Mama is deserving of its three and a half stars. There’s no denying that there are things that could have been done better, but this is a promising debut from brother and sister Andres and Barbara Muschietti.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2