After her breakthrough portrayal last year as the saintly mother in The Tree Of Life, Jessica Chastain found herself inundated with screenplays offering similar roles. A contrarian by nature, she refused to be typecast, taking a starring role in Andres Muschietti’s Mama, an uneven ghost story that relies heavily on cliche but features plenty of jolting scares before the end credits roll.Chastain plays Annabel, a bassist in an unknown punk band who possesses about as much maternal instinct as Madea. Her artist boyfriend Lucas (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has a twin brother who, in the movie’s opening sequence, murders his wife and takes his two small daughters on the lam. A car accident lands them in an abandoned cabin in a snowy forest where – about to dispense with his daughters and kill himself – he is murdered by a shadowy attacker, leaving the girls to fend for themselves.
Six years later they are discovered by a pair of trackers. Living in the forest has turned them into feral beasts barely resembling human children. But with some therapy they are made to seem almost normal, albeit eerily reticent and psychically removed. As such, they are remanded to Annabel and Lucas who are furnished a suburban home in which to raise them provided psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) is given full access to the girls for study.
In time, it becomes clear how the girls survived on their own. “Mama,” the ghostly force that dispensed with their father years ago, has followed the children to the new house, clinging to them as if they were her own.When an encounter with Mama leaves Lucas in a coma, Annabel is given full custody. Gradually the ghost makes her presence known in a way that provides Muschietti’s debut film with its greatest strength. The filmmakers wisely keep Mama’s ghostly visage hidden from the audience, gradually revealing their monster, as with the shark in Jaws, saving her till the end when we see her in her full glory.
Mama has been called a horror film, but it’s a ghost story, relying primarily on atmosphere and less on shock and gore. Scene by scene, Muschietti builds tension, allowing us artful glimpses of Mama, most memorably when her shadow is spied through a bedroom door as she plays tug of war with one of the children. His ability to insinuate otherworldly threats is occasionally reminiscent of the Japanese tradition which gave us spooky classics like Ugetsu and Kuroneko and later The Ring, which Mama sometimes evokes.
Antonio Riestra’s gloomy cinematography underscores the shadowy psychic landscape permeating the movie, and Michele Conroy’s adept editing brings punch to Mama’s scary sequences without overdoing it.
Unfortunately, Mama relies a bit too heavily on cliches such as creaky hinges and things that go bump in the night, as well as proliferating moths and faulty electricity auguring an otherworldly presence.
Fernando Velasquez’s score frequently overwhelms scenes and cheap gimmicks like overly loud sound cues are employed to jolt the audience from time to time. But Mama’s most glaring transgression is a script which allows the audience to stay well ahead of the characters. By the time Dr. Dreyfuss and Annabel begin to sense supernatural elements are at play, the audience is long since familiar with the threat.Coming off her Golden Globe win and heading into the Oscars as a frontrunner, Chastain acquits herself well here, embodying Annabel with a naturalism that overrides occasionally clunky dialogue. Sporting an octopus tattoo and a black wig that suggests Liza Minnelli, she slips seamlessly into the role, serving the genre without ever condescending to it.
Joining her are little Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse who portray a pair of ‘creepy kids’ in a manner that is both convincing and free of cliche. But Coster-Waldau, as Lucas, cannot overcome the limits of his character as written.
If you find the shortcomings listed here outweigh Mama’s considerable strengths, wait till the last act where the ghostly 19th century back story catches up to the present. Muschietti stages his finale on a moonlit cliff overlooking a lake where a knotty old tree casts a tortured shadow. In a final, climactic standoff, Muschietti combines genuine emotion with horror in an almost Burton-esque manner, elevating Mama to a level that starkly outdoes the rest of the movie.
If you are looking for blood and mayhem, you’ll be better off checking out Texas Chainsaw 3-D. While Mama is occasionally hamstrung by cliches, it is a stylish and effective ghost story that lives up to its promise, delivering spine-tingling scares.
How eager are you to be scared by Mama? Watch the film’s theatrical trailer, and let us know what you thought of the movie in the comments below!
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