A dead mother with a grudge. A female ghost with long, clammy hair obscuring a twisted and vengeful face. A monster with a hideously contorted body and unnatural movement. Moviegoers can probably put the name of a movie or two to each of the above sentences, and the fact that Mama has a central monster that exhibits all these features will do much to dampen the expectations of those looking for an original horror movie. To be fair to first-time director Andres Muschietti, on whose 3-minute short of the same name it’s based, Mama wears the familiar influences quite lightly. While not transcending the boundaries of genre tradition, the film is a surprisingly good chiller with some very nice shocks and jolts, prompted by a titular bogey that for my money is the first of its kind: a CGI creation that’s actually quite scary.
Jessica Chastain, the Busiest Actress in the World™, is Annabel, a movie-sanitized ‘rawk chick’ replete with raven black hair and half-hearted goth makeup. She is together with Lucas, played by certified Michael Laudrup lookalike Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones, whose brother lost his marbles in the 2008 financial crisis and, after a murder rampage, kidnapped his two young daughters and disappeared into the woods (disappointingly, the film is a little too explicit about what happens to the girls). Fast forward 5 years to the present, the girls are found in an abandoned cabin in feral conditions, and Lucas takes them into his care, much to Annabel’s chagrin. A dodgy doctor agrees to help Lucas keep the girls against the wishes of their much wealthier aunt, in return for continued access to them for his research. He even agrees, somewhat implausibly, to provide a nice new suburban home for the new ‘family’. But something, someone, moves in with them; someone who had been keeping the girls alive all these years in the wild; someone who they refer to as ‘Mama’; someone who isn’t keen on letting them go so easily.
There’s a lot of nice little refreshing touches in Mama that keeps it from feeling derivative. Annabel is not a dowdy housewife who desperately wants kids but can’t have them; on the contrary, we see her celebrating after a pregnancy test comes out negative, and she’s not all that pleased with having to become an unwitting parent. Annabel is cool to the girls not just at first but for a surprisingly long duration of the film, and there’s no immediate and illogical maternal instinct coming to the fore here. Mama, despite the name, has a fairly restrained sense of sentimentality, and the two children, terrifically acted, are not the usual Hollywood ‘challenge’ for the grown-ups to solve. As for the horror, there’s a lot to like, if you can overlook a couple of rather illogical setups, particularly the fact that the aloof Annabel, left alone after Lucas is hospitalized, doesn’t just bolt when skin-crawling things start happening in her new home. The structure of the film is unusual in that many elements of the mystery – or at least some very strong implications – are revealed early on, yet for longer than I dared hope, it holds its tension together. Much of that is thanks to Muschietti’s deft manipulation of empty spaces, suggestive off-camera happenings, and old-fashioned yet adroit use of lighting. The best scares occur inside the house, with closet-doors, sharp angles on walls and furniture, and long corridors providing claustrophobic props for the film to stage them. Encouragingly, Mama doesn’t rely on darkness or the night to frighten. The interiors of the suburban house, full of the familiar trappings of middle-class comfort – thick curtains and carpet, four-post beds, winding stairs, upstair rooms – work to stifle sunlight and create blind spots. The creepiest moments indeed take place during daytime, when the audience’s expectations for respite, conditioned by decades of horror-movie tradition, are skillfully exploited and turned on their head.
Mama only unravels in the last half an hour, when the film is forced to start wrapping things up for the ending. The tension, so expertly built up and maintained, rapidly dissipates amid rushed narrative progression, and the characters, hitherto so stubborn in staying indoors, suddenly start going to other places for very stupid reasons. There’s also at least one plot device involving Lucas that is introduced rather memorably, only to be left completely unexplored. But the biggest cause for the late letdown is simply that we see more and more of the grotesque Mama as the film progresses. Seen in glimpses, she is a memorably chilling creation, and furthermore the CG effects are nicely disguised; the impact, however, gradually lessens as more of Mama is revealed. Finally, the melodramatic ending contrasts unfavourably to the Tourneur-esque economy and control of the earlier scenes.
There’s no doubt, though, that Mama is a horror movie of considerable craft and skill that horror aficionados will not find hard to appreciate. It resists the tendency in recent movies of the genre to fall into either blood-drenched mayhem or found footage chic, and unfolds its story at its own pace and with self-assured panache. Mama’s best moments are crammed into a markedly superior middle section that’s sadly bookended by a ropey opening and a hurried ending. It falls some way short of a classic, but there’s much to enjoy and take away from this confident feature debut.