A father kills his business partners and the mother of his children. At home, the man snatches his two daughters before fleeing through snowy weather to who-knows-where. He is merely trying to escape the terror that is life. His car flies off the road and down a steep hill, before coming to rest near a small wooden cabin. Flustered and frightened, the man takes his girls into the cabin, with the plan of shooting them and then himself.
This does not occur.
A ghostly figure rips him away from the deed, leaving the girls - one an infant and the other barely into her school years – to live in the wilderness sans human interaction; there is only Mama.
Years later, the aforementioned man’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) searches in vein for his missing family with the love of his life Annabel (Jessica Chastain) by his side. He eventually finds them, with the two girls now beastly in nature, prone to growling and leaping. Victoria (Megan Charpentier), the older of the two, shows some sense of her previous self though, even as the younger Lilly (Isabelle Nelisee) struggles to return to societal norms. Additionally, Lilly regularly longs for “Mama,” much to the confusion of Lucas, Annabel and a child therapist who finds the whole scenario deeply fascinating. Trouble bubbles as Lucas and Annabel try to raise the young ones, as occurs when a female ghost prone to killing gets jealous of new maternal figures.
There’s a great movie within Mama, the debut feature film by director Andres Muschietti, whom is expanding his short of the same premise and name. Muschietti stages several clever, unnerving scenes with a similar core; misdirection. One such incident features the camera at the end of a hallway, Annabel working through laundry at the end of it and Lilly playing in the foreground with who we, mistakenly, assume is her sister. When Muschietti shows Victoria walking past Annabel in the back, we discover that the infamous Mama has rejoined the girls she once cared for.
Muschietti and his writing partners do a nice job of constructing small moments, both scary and slyly moving. Annabel, unsurprisingly well played by Jessica Chastain, yearns to connect with Victoria and Lilly, despite each one’s innate wariness. Her bluntness and concern seeps through on occasion, giving a slight depth to this movie littered with standard horror tropes. However, the whole doesn’t hold.
More often than not, Mama suffers from your Hollywood clichés, from the jump-scares to the sudden blast of music to remind an audience something spooky this way comes. It’s a shame that Muschietti resorts to such lazy maneuvers for each one undercuts any of the proper atmosphere built elsewhere. Add to that a script unable to avoid flat-characters acting stupidly and eye-rolling coincidences; Mama ends up mediocre when it could’ve been special.
Mama opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.