starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat
written by: Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti, Neil Cross
directed by: Andrés Muschietti
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
A solid female-driven ghost story by any standard and pretty remarkable for a January release, Mama is a scary movie with soul. In its gripping prologue, we overhear a news report about a fatal double-shooting at a Wall Street banking firm just as we see its broken perpetrator, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), return home to kill his wife and two young daughters. After we hear the shooting of his wife off-camera, a sweaty and blood-flecked Jeffrey bursts into the bedroom of his angelic blond daughters, three-year-old Victoria and one-year-old Lilly, and immediately bundles them into his car. His crazed driving on the wintry roads leads to an accident, followed by a trek through the snowy wilderness leading to an almost comically foreboding black cabin. Yes, a cabin in the woods. But Jeffrey had just finished killing three people and kidnapping his daughters, so taking them into a sinister cabin wasn’t even the craziest thing he’d done that hour.
It soon becomes clear that the severely conflicted Jeffrey plans on killing his daughters and then himself, until he is lethally interrupted by…something. Something that rolls a cherry to Victoria and Lilly as they hold each other on the cabin floor, uncertain of what has happened and with no idea what’s to come. And: titles! The next thing we know, it’s five years later. Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) has never stopped looking for his brother and nieces, since their disappearance was never solved. But five years is a long time to wait, and Lucas’ rocker chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, sporting a black Joan Jett shag and an octopus tattoo sleeve) would rather he just move on. But then, quite by accident, his investigators stumble across the cabin and find Victoria and Lilly. Or at least the girls that began as Victoria and Lilly: these gorgeous porcelain dolls have devolved into feral dirt-covered animals that crawl around on all fours and are almost entirely nonverbal. After briefly considering they might just be standing in the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo house, the investigators call in their discovery.
Lucas is notified, and the girls are immediately placed in the care of a child psychiatrist named Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Their experience in the woods has left them with far too many jarringly primitive habits to easily reintegrate into the civilized world, although Victoria, now 8, is much closer to healing since she’d already developed speech patterns before she began her life in the cabin; the same is sadly (and scarily) not true for Isabelle, now 6, whose humanness is barely perceptible. Dr. Dreyfuss decides the best course of action is for the girls to move in with Lucas and Annabel in a large family-style house owned by the hospital and used for such treatments. The surly and decidedly non-maternal Annabel isn’t thrilled about this turn of events, only agreeing to it because of Lucas. But when he is hospitalized under mysterious circumstances almost immediately after moving into the house, Annabel finds herself in the extremely unpleasant position of being solely responsible for these two damaged little girls. But hey, guess what? It gets worse. The “something” that helped keep the girls alive all those years in the cabin has followed them into their new home. They call it “Mama,” and it just wants to take care of them. It’s also quite protective. And violent. And also terrifying.
Mama is pretty damn scary. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it continues his career-long fascination with dark fairy tales of children in perilous relationships with supernatural entities. It gets quite a bit of mileage out of the usual ghost movie clichés—jump scares, flickering lights, sudden blackouts—but also features several delightfully clever scare setups. And while nearly all of the adult characters wander into the woods and/or dark houses in the middle of the night while alone, the cliché factor doesn’t necessarily lessen the impact of the scares. The film is also bolstered by its strong performances, particularly from the borderline-overexposed Chastain, worlds removed from the radiant maternal archetype she embodied in The Tree of Life, and young actresses Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. As Lilly, Nélisse is a particularly astounding find. How can such a young girl be so remarkably disturbing to watch? I kept waiting for an Orphan-style reveal, but nope. Just a scary little girl.
Still, Mama is more than just a scary movie. Confidently directed by first-time feature helmer Andrés Muschietti (adapting his short film of the same name), it takes a surprising emotional toll, with an oddly beautiful finale sequence that kinda left me with a lump in my throat. It gives us four rich and challenging female characters: one adult, two children, and one ghost. As for Mama herself, the film allows her to be terrifying but also understandable. We get her full backstory, learning all about how she first became this ostensibly vengeful ghost. Rather than an inherently malevolent monster, Mama is written as more of an old-fashioned ghost: a spirit that used to be human and is only trying to right a wrong that was done to her. It’s not every day that you encounter a winter horror movie that passes the Bechdel Test, so for that, I give Mama credit.
Mama opens nationwide today.