Like virtually any modern horror film, Mama is packed with jump-shocks, but with one significant twist: Apart from one dream sequence, they aren’t fake-outs, where a terrified character breathlessly follows a mysterious sound, then gets startled by a cat or an errant toy or tree branch or family member. If something’s making a creepy noise, it’s usually actually the monster, and Mama isn’t stingy about showing off that monster. It isn’t particularly coy about the mystery behind it, either. Where comparable horror-art films like The Ring and The Orphanage spend a hefty part of their runtime exploring the mysteries behind a haunting, and arming and alarming the protagonists with intel, Mama explains the important parts early, then makes the central question not, “What’s going on?” but, “Can this thing be stopped before it kills everyone around it?”
The film begins with a string of events that leave two tiny girls orphaned and abandoned in a remote, creepy cabin in the woods, where they’re protected and fed by a bleakly terrifying spirit they simply call “Mama.” Five years later, a search party funded by their artist uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game Of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, who briefly plays the kids’ father as well) finds the girls, now scrawny, filthy, and fully feral. Coster-Waldau sets out to rehabilitate and reclaim them, with the immensely reluctant help of his rock-bassist girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), but Mama follows them to their new home, and quickly proves jealous, malevolent, and increasingly dangerous. The film spends a little time on the efforts to find out what exactly Mama is, but mostly, it spins skin-prickling chills out of images of the girls cheerfully playing with something not entirely unseen, or out of the creature’s stuttering movement as it stalks Coster-Waldau, Chastain, and other adults. For that matter, the two scuttling, wide-eyed little animal-girls are unsettling enough that Mama would have plenty of scares even without the supernatural element.
Producer Guillermo del Toro encountered Mama writer-director Andrés Muschietti and his co-writer and sister Barbara Muschietti through a three-minute 2008 horror short they directed with the same title, the same color palette, and a twitchy ghost confronting two girls. (The short doesn’t spoil anything in the movie; it’s little more than a “Boo!”) Del Toro took them in, supported their work, and provided guidance, technical support, and financing, as he has with other first-time filmmakers in recent years—Carlos Cuarón with Rudo Y Cursi, Troy Nixey with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Juan Antonio Bayona with The Orphanage. The result is a visually accomplished film similar in look and tone to del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Bayona’s Orphanage. It’s equal parts ghost story, home-invasion thriller, and found-family story, and it draws knowledgably on traditional horror elements (creepy kids, erratic lighting, an obsession with insects and goo) and modern technical choices (particularly its jerky J-horror ghost), while making room for its own innovative flavor.
Some of that flavor comes from the terrific cast, particularly the astoundingly convincing child actors. Some comes from unusual characterization. Chastain’s refreshingly blunt rock musician isn’t the usual protective-mom type: She doesn’t want children, she approaches her wild new charges with understandable discomfort, and she even puts herself first when trouble starts, asking the kids’ psychologist first and foremost, “Am I safe?” And while the sober older girl (Megan Charpentier) learns to find Mama frightening, her more animalistic younger sister (Isabelle Nélisse), who never knew another mother, still loves the monster unconditionally. These conflicts contribute to the film’s tense, complicated family dynamic, building a rich emotional tangle that makes all the startles much more meaningful. Plenty of horror movies are willing to settle for making audiences jump. Mama is more ambitious by far: It makes sure viewers are emotionally committed even when they aren’t clutching their armrests or covering their eyes.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Mama’s Spoiler Space.