There’s plenty that’s interesting about Mama; that instantly elevates this vengeful spirit tale above your dime-a-dozen horror film. An unusual premise, strong performances, thematic depth and A-list involvement are a big plus. However, the film never really establishes its own distinct identity – there’s nothing horror fans haven’t seen before – and ultimately Mama feels stronger in concept than execution.
From the outset Mama is positioned more like a dark fairy tale than a conventional horror film, but with Guillermo del Toro executive producing that’s not too surprising. Anyway, a tragedy leaves 3-year old Victoria and 1-year old Lilly alone in an isolated cabin. They seem destined to die there until a mysterious, cackling presence appears. It cares for the children, and they name it “Mama”. Five years later though, the by-now-feral girls are found and hauled back to society. Their bohemian uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is happy to raise them; his rock musician girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) less so – in fact, we meet her celebrating a negative pregnancy test. With this unusual family unit under strain from the outset, the situation is made worse by the jealous presence, which has followed the girls from the woods.
Tonally, Mama sits most comfortably alongside recent family-centric genre entries like Insidious, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Woman in Black. There’s also a lot of The Grudge and The Ring present as well. If you tend to prefer horror films of this slow-burn nature, that’s fantastic because, in short, Mama is more about atmosphere and mystery-unravelling than gore. Of course, it’s not short on jump moments either.
It’s just that the Mama feels a bit too straightforward. There’s no ambiguity to get the audience thinking. Although a psychologist poses the theory that Mama is actually just Victoria suffering from a dissociative identity disorder, there’s never any doubt in the viewer’s mind that he’s wrong. And although the depiction of her backstory is effective, we know who and what Mama is from pretty early on in the film. Hell, one minor character even appears to spell out everything in big, bold capital letters. Writer-director Andres Muschietti, adapting his own short film, could really have mixed things up, but he sadly doesn’t.
Fortunately though, while the narrative is rather flat, other components of the film keep you engaged. With a string of indie and Oscar bait dramas under her belt, critical darling Chastain is playing against type here, and she’s convincing, likeably no-nonsense and Ripley tough. With Mama, Chastain proves she can carry a mainstream genre film pretty much on her own.
The child actors playing Victoria and Lilly are also great. Megan Charpentier has a more complex role to fill, conveying Victoria’s struggle to choose between Mama and Annabel. It’s young Isabelle Nelisse who’s the real scene stealer of the film though, portraying Lilly as a creepy-as-all-hell wild child who has been completely deprived of normal societal development. She darts around on all fours, leaps on tables, grins at the walls with her rotten teeth, and guzzles cherries and moths with equal glee. It’s both fascinating and disturbing, and the film could have focused more on the girls’ struggle with integration.
As for the character of Mama, she certainly has her moments – her big attack on Annabel especially – but even just in appearance she’s unnerving. Coming across like a real-world version of the Other Mother in Coraline’s later scenes, she’s all elongated features and double-jointed limbs, scuttling around on the walls and floor like a spider. This said, her “tuft of hair” attacks (you’ll know them when you see them) are more ludicrous than scary.
Mama is an unusually female-centric horror film, and deserves some extra recognition for its focus on motherhood and the bond between sisters. However, on the whole it’s nothing exceptional – just another classy-looking ghost story that does its job for 100 minutes.
P.S. If you are planning on watching Mama at the cinema, try to do so at one with Dolby Atmos sound. It really adds to the experience.