I love me a maniacal gore-fest just as much as the next horror fan, but sometimes it’s nice to watch a good old fashioned ghost story that skimps on the blood, guts, and torture porn, yet is still able to deliver on the creepifying factor. Mama, director Andrés Muschietti’s first feature film and starring Jessica Chastain and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, exemplifies this.
Expanding on Muschietti’s 2008 short film of the same name, Mama follows the story of two little girls who, following a tragedy that claims the lives of both their parents, end up being raised in an abandoned cabin in the forest by an entity they call “Mama.” Five years after being stranded in the woods, Victoria and Lilly are eventually rescued, brought back to civilization, and put under the care of their uncle Lucas (their father’s twin brother) and his girlfriend Annabel. “Mama,” of course, comes along for the ride.
What follows is an uncommon depiction of motherhood, with “Mama” trying to protect and keep the girls for herself even at the cost of others’ lives, and Annabel’s struggle to reconcile her old carefree punk rock lifestyle with this new role of caretaker she’s been thrust into. Chastain does a great job at portraying Annabel’s changing attitude toward the girls, at first only putting up with them for the sake of her boyfriend, before eventually embracing both the children and her desire to protect them from the ghost that haunts them. (Random note: She’s also among the few horror movie characters I can remember who made the right life choice and didn’t open the closet door to see what was inside. You go, girl.)
Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, who play Victoria and Lilly, are also fantastic in their roles – particularly Nélisse, whose fluidity of motion as she leaps and bounds around her scenes gives Lilly a frighteningly wild look about her. The care with which the “Mama” character’s appearance is created makes for one mesmerizing ghost – equal parts ethereal and demonic, with just a touch of dark humor (there’s one notably hilarious scene where all you can see of “Mama” is her mop of hair zipping around on the wood floor). Her back story is as tragic as to be expected.
Mama utilizes a lot of the usual tools in the process of its ghost-storytelling, which further cements the simple, old-fashioned feel to the film. There are loads of randomly moving furniture, humming of lullabies, bleeding walls, gateways to other dimensions, ghosts with unfinished business, flickering lights, flashbacks, and more.
Unfortunately, Mama has a fantastically slow build-up with a sadly lackluster payoff. There are just enough jump scares to keep the momentum up, but the best moments in the film are actually the quiet ones – the character-driven shots where Annabel bonds with Victoria and Lily, and the long moments just before a shadow of a ghost passes by.
Leading up to the climax, however, all the loose ends very conveniently tie themselves up into a pretty little bow. The meddling characters are removed from the picture at very opportune moments, while other characters just happen to run into each other right when they needed to. “Mama” switches from malevolent to tragically confused and back again so many times it gave me whiplash. The ending pulls together a bittersweet but completely unnecessary conclusion, and like all horror movies, there’s just a smidgen of plot left over to make you wonder if the story really is over.
Mama‘s assets lie in its gradually building storytelling and sympathetic characters, but falters in strength by the end – still, you walk away with enough shivers down your spine that those missteps can almost be forgotten.
- Starring: Jessica Chastian, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
- Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
- Running Time: 100 minutes
- Genre: Horror