Jessica Chastain, the ubiquitous star of Zero Dark Thirty whose versatility apparently knows no bounds, stars in the new supernatural thriller Mama, an eerie ghost story that relies more on suggestion than visceral thrills. If it doesn’t exactly scare us, it certainly raises a goosebump or two.
Produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andres Muschietti, the success of Mama rests on its expert central performance, highly evocative cinematography, inventive use of lighting, shadow and frame and a nifty spectral creation that is, by turns, menacing and sympathetic.
Unlike most modern horror films, there are no chainsaws, vapid teens or gratuity in Mama, but there are several effective shocks—both the “boo” variety and others cleverly suggested—that make this low-key little picture one that avoids cliché but also one that may not pay off for today’s jaded horror audience. And that would be too bad.
The opening gives us a loaded set-up—there’s been an altercation at Wall Street firm following the stock market crash which has led to a shooting—and the possible perpetrator, a manic suit named Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rushes to his tony home to gather his young daughters, elder Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and toddler Lily (Isabelle Nelisse), fleeing to a spectacularly shot winter mountain wilderness where they take refuge in a dilapidated cabin. And it’s a cabin that isn’t quite abandoned, as Lucas discovers just before attempting to kills the girls and himself.
Five years later, his brother, Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau), has been searching for survival signs of his nieces, thought to have perished deep in the mountains. His girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), is a goth-styled, tattooed, mascara-laden bass guitarist, and the off-beat pair are apartment dwellers—the kind who stay up late and sleep in even later—and hardly parental.
When the girls are discovered and brought back home, it clear that they have descended to a feral state—growls, walking on all-fours (questionable, given their ages when lost)—brought into the care of a psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) before being released to Jeffrey and Annabelle, the recipients of a large, state subsidized suburban home (because you need a house in a haunted house movie) to bring the girls back to some degree of normalcy.
Yet there’s something else that’s come back with them, manifesting itself in large, fluttering moths and crayon drawings, and after Jeffrey makes this discovery he ends up hospitalized and comatose, leaving it up to reluctant surrogate mom Annabelle to take the reigns, which this mysterious being, dubbed “Mama” by young Lily, doesn’t take too kindly to.
The middle of the picture is a shell game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” as Annabelle and the girls grow closer and the entity becomes increasingly malevolent. There are a few superbly shot, chilling flashback sequences, one involving a nun and a suicide told from the point of view of Mama herself, that evoke the barbaric surrealism of Ken Russell’s sequences in his heyday, boldly executed.
It’s clear why the gifted Chastain took this role as Annabelle really is the mama of note here, evolving from free spirit to fierce protector, a substantial character for a modern horror picture as much about maternity as about its frequent jolts.
Once Mama reveals herself—and there are some seriously creepy manifestations, including crawling hair and shape shifting—as expected, she loses a bit of her fascination. And as with producer del Toro’s own The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the humanization takes a bit of the wind out of the villain’s sails. It’s insinuating if not truly terrifying.
The final reel leads to a rather predictable showdown between mamas, which isn’t up to the level of the rest of this picture and undoes some of the atmosphere and our investment.
Yet one particular moment has an ingenuity and elegance that will be talked about for some time, and that involves a child’s game happening within a bedroom, as we watch from a hallway through the door frame. It’s a moment of superb expectation subversion, a misdirection that really pays off as we realize we’re looking at something completely different than we thought.
Mama is worth seeing for its slow-build suspense and Chastain’s rich performance.