“Mama” is billed as a horror movie, but it’s more of a ghost story/fairy tale that derives its tension from vague fears about parenthood (specifically motherhood), rather than a malevolent entity.
Helmed by first-time director Andres Muschietti, “Mama” bears the clear influence of Guillermo del Toro, the auteur behind horror/fantasy hybrids such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Cronos.” The film is elegant, dreamlike and often disturbingly beautiful, and takes time to develop its simple story: Two young girls are kidnapped by their father after he kills his co-workers, and end up in a remote forest cabin after he drives off the road in a snow storm. Just as the father raises his gun to shoot the older girl in the back of the head, a shivery supernatural being emerges from the walls and kills him.
The film then jumps ahead five years, to the day when a search team finds the two girls, now feral, dirty and malnourished, living in the cabin. The children are brought back to civilization, where their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), set about integrating into their daily lives. Which isn’t easy, because the kids are really weird, especially the younger girl, named Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse). While the other sister, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), slowly begins to warm up to living in a house with a mother and a father, Lilly continues to feed on cherries (what the girls ate in the wild), runs around on all fours and refuses to be touched or held by Lucas or Annabel. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the girls haven’t entirely left the forest behind: The shivery supernatural being, called Mama, has followed them to the suburbs, and taken up residence.
“Mama” is at its best when it focuses on the children, and how Annabel, who is forced to raise them alone after Luke is hospitalized after a nighttime encounter with Mama, feels about them. Annabel has never wanted children, and she regards Lilly and Victoria with trepidation: She doesn’t know what these strange little kids are thinking, she suspects they might be dangerous and she worries that she is not up to the task of caring for them. (As time goes on, she also begins to suspect that someone is visiting the children during the night.) This preoccupation with children and parenthood places “Mama” in the subgenre of horror films about “bad seeds” (although Lilly and Victoria are more damaged than bad) such as “The Omen,” “Who Can Kill a Child?” and the 2008 British horror film “The Children.”
Overall, “Mama’s” plot is fairly routine. What little unpredictability the film does have comes from ongoing suspense over how Lilly and Victoria will behave from scene to scene; when Annabel asks the child psychiatrist treating the girls whether she’s safe, the audience is asking the same question. To its credit, “Mama” is not without a sense of humor. When the girls’ aunt visits, Annabel describes the dirt-covered children as “outdoorsy.”
“Mama” loses steam in its third act, when Mama makes her wrath fully felt. Like most horror films, the movie is most effective during its first half, when Mama is kept mostly offscreen and her powers and appearance are only hinted at; seeing Mama’s complete form robs the film of its eerie power, because her appearance, though undeniably creepy, simply can’t live up to the expectations raised by the movie’s twisted earlier passages. (I also have a feeling that the CGI ghoul is not going to age especially well.)
Those earlier passages are often grimly compelling: I especially liked how Muschietti filmed the girls playing with Mama in their bedroom while Annabel cleans the house — we never see Mama, but we see Lilly playing tug-of-war with someone who is offscreen, and then floating up along the ceiling, her feet four or five feet off the ground. It’s also worth mentioning that the performances are excellent: Nelisse and Charpentier are creepy and complex, and Chastain transforms herself into a tough, smart woman who is in over her head.
“Mama” wouldn’t be a horror film if the characters didn’t make inexplicable and idiotic decisions, and in the final stretch SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! we get to see first the child psychiatrist and then Luke and then Annabel drive out to the cabin in the middle of the night. I don’t know about you, but visiting a haunted cabin by yourself seems like a really bad idea, and I wish the characters in horror movies would stop doing it. The end of the movie comes down to a battle between Mama and Annabel over the girls’ souls, and although this confrontation is a bit over-the-top and hysterical (and not particularly scary, for what it’s worth), I appreciated the film’s willingness to stick to its dark convictions, and depict a world where some children are beyond saving.
Click here to enter my Oscar contest.
Got a comment? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.