After Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly’s (Isabelle Nelisse) father kidnaps them and crashes their car into the forest, the two adolescent girls are left to fend for themselves in a deserted cabin out in the woods… though they were not alone. Five years later, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau-twin brother of the dad), who had been paying people to search for his nieces, finally finds the girls and are brought in for psychiatric tests. After being under careful observation, Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take the girls home in an attempt to raise them. What they don’t know is that there is a spirit named Mama watching over the girls and, like any mother that feels threatened, she gets jealous and over-protective when she gets wind that Lucas is trying to take them from her. Andrés Muschietti’s Mama shows what happens when the freaky, supernatural motherly force takes on its gothic human counterpart(s).
When the two children are found, both are extremely creepy, but as the film progresses you slowly see a shift in personalities as Victoria, the older child who understand English, becomes more “normal” and protective of Annabel since she is trying to care for them. Lilly on the other hand continues to be the wild nature girl that manages to creepily crawl around the home playing with Mama, causing you to constantly sweat from haunting anticipation. Just looking at her is creepy. I have to give props to whoever found these girls because they did an excellent job balancing the playful childlike personalities with their sharp and animalistic personas of living in the wild.
Mama isn’t the greatest horror flick out there but it is a refreshing one to take in. Muschietti is able to create an ideal atmosphere for bone chilling effects and scares that PG-13 horrors typically can’t achieve. Additionally, his movie avoids some of the most common horror clichés, namely the stupid female character. Having Annabel as a rocker makes her comical in the beginning because she has a hands off approach to parenting, but it’s her intelligence that I welcomed with open arms. For example, there is a scene when she knows there might be something in the closet and Victoria says “don’t open it.” When Annabel steps forward and grabs the handle, she pushes the door shut instead of letting curiosity get the best of her, something which is rarely done in horror, so thank you Andrés for having a character with some form of intellect early on in the film.
Furthermore, Muschietti was surprisingly on point when it came to his comedic timing. The movie has a few intentionally (I think) funny moments and they helped de-stress the crowd before the next wave of spookiness. It was a nice way to distract the audience even if what we were watching was actually pretty freaky in retrospect.
For the most part, the movie will be better than expected for most, but it’s the end that will likely divide the crowds. Without spoiling it, I found the ending to be perfectly in-line with traditional ghost stories about tortured souls looking for a way home. Other might find its dramatic ending as a cop-out, uneventful and a non-threatening way to close out a movie about a creepy mother stuck in purgatory.
Overall, Mama feels like a mix between Lucky McKee’s The Woman and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intruders, if they were toned down for a PG-13 that is. I can understand why Guillermo del Toro decided to become an executive producer on the film, this is the kind of story that he would normally write (think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) and it’s PG-13 horror content would definitely freak out the young-ins while providing a few jumps to the older crowd not afraid to lower their barriers. In the end, Mama is a decent horror flick that’ll get you on the edge of your seat but won’t scare you enough to remember it a few weeks after you leave the theater.
Rating: A descent, yet predictable, ghost story that delivers stress relieving chuckles while providing a few creepy scares (5.8/10)