Mama tells the story of two young girls who are abandoned in the woods by their deranged father, then discovered alive five years later. Mama is produced by Pan’s Labyrinth’s Guillermo del Toro and is an assured feature-length directorial debut from Andrés Muschietti. Mama enjoys a similar gothic horror verve to recent del Toro-produced pictures The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. In the lead as the reluctant foster parent is Jessica Chastain, currently Oscar-nominated for her role in Zero Dark Thirty. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars in a dual role, as both the uncle and father of the missing girls. And the girls are played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, both creepy and charming in equal measure.
The film opens on the back of an unseen killing spree by a banker, which leads to his driving off into the snowy wilderness with his two young daughters. Skidding off a mountain pass in his Mercedes (license plate reads ‘No.1 Dad’), the father carries the girls to an abandoned cabin where he plans to end his dismal journey. But guess what, the cabin isn’t abandoned after all. It is home to Mama. So five years later, the girls are discovered in the cabin. Wild, disheveled and animal-like, but alive thanks to a supernatural guardian. Following some psychological evaluation by Dr. Dreyfuss (played by Daniel Cash), the girls are reunited with their uncle, and go to live with him and his partner.
The girls spend their time scuttling round the house, whispering into the shadows and drawing disturbing pictures of crooked figures. Gradually becoming less feral, but displaying some increasingly creepy behavior. Soon, a thought-to-be imaginary playmate named Mama begins to visit the children. There are some genuine jumpy moments in Mama as the scares build up and are delivered in style. At one point, you see the younger sister playing with one end of a sheet through an open doorway, with the other end being tugged out of view. A moment later, the older sister walks past and you know there is no one else in the room – Mama has a few good visual tricks like this. As the relationship between Chastain and the girls develops, Mama starts to get jealous. Life in the house then takes a turn for the demented, as Mama don’t take no mess.
When the uncle is hospitalized following a Mama-induced fall, Chastain is then left alone to raise the girls and is subjected to a number of freaky occurrences. Meanwhile, the girls are being pursued for custody by an authoritarian aunt (yeah, doesn’t end well!). Whilst this is going on, Dr. Dreyfuss has been interviewing the girls and begins to track down the story of now-believed Mama. Due to some textbook poor horror movie decision-making on the part of Dr. Dreyfuss, Chastain is left to pick up the trail. She begins to unravel the mystery of Mama and as the film comes to its climax, Mama comes out of the closet and tries to steal back the girls. Though a frightening figure just out of focus or flashing past, when fully revealed, Mama is a little disappointing. Though the effects are very good, the suggestion of Mama slightly hidden away works better than the figure up close and personal. Especially when her twisted features are supposed to be conveying some semblance of emotion…is that empathy, or emotional turmoil, or does Mama just need to fart?
Though the ending is a little disappointing, overall Mama is the best horror film that’s been out for quite some time. It’s original, has plenty of scares, all the central performances are strong and decent dialogue helps keeps you captivated. It would have been fun to have Mama take part in some more mundane parenting tasks, taking the kids to softball practice and filling up the cart at Wal-Mart. But seriously, Mama’s parenting skills leave a lot to be desired.
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