“Mama” is a supernatural horror film that’s perfectly content to not break any ground and freely revels in as many ghost movie clichés as possible. These would include: A deserted cabin in the woods; children personally tied to a paranormal entity; said entity’s tragic back story, which dates all the way back to the nineteenth century; disturbing visions bestowed on those who up until now had never had a vision of any kind; flickering lights and dark hallways; and a psychologist who asks his patients questions under hypnosis. What the film lacks in originality, to say absolutely nothing about plausibility, is made up for in tone, pacing, and suspense. You will probably not jump out of your seats, the few well-placed popout scares notwithstanding, although you will be unsettled by the persistent creepiness, which permeates virtually every frame of the film.
If for no other reason, you might want to see this film just for the satisfaction of watching Jessica Chastain yet again expanding her horizons as an actor. In the past several years alone, she has played the wife of a Shakespearian general, an Israeli secret agent, a 1960s Southern housewife, a nurturing wife and mother in 1950s Waco, an animated jaguar, a Prohibition-era burlesque dancer, and a CIA agent on a manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Now she plays a horror-punk rocker up against an evil spirit. Don’t think this isn’t a stretch on her part; acting is just as much about subtlety as it is about grand gestures, and sometimes, the subtleties make the biggest difference. You can see it in the quieter moments, when the characters are allowed to really be themselves. Such moments can be found in “Mama,” and they’re the ones in which Chastain is the most convincing.
Adapted by Andres Muschietti from his own Spanish-language short film from 2008, the film opens with a distraught man named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) driving erratically down an ice-covered road in the middle of a wooded mountain range blanketed in snow. He has with him his two daughters, three-year-old Victoria and one-year-old Lilly. Somehow, all three survive when the car skids off the road, plunges down a steep slope, and crashes into a pair of trees. They make their way through the cold to an abandoned cabin. At around this time, we learn that (a) Jeffrey has killed both his business associates and his ex-wife, and (b) he plans to finish the job in the cabin with a murder/suicide. Just as he tearfully points a gun to the back of Victoria’s head, something grabs him from behind and snaps his neck. Little Victoria wasn’t able to what it was, for Jeffrey had removed her glasses. Sometime later, as the girls sit quietly on the floor in front of a fire, a figure hidden in shadow rolls a cherry towards them.
Flash forward five years. A rescue party, which has been funded by Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (also played by Waldau), finally finds the crashed car, the cabin, and the girls. In a movie like this, we must set aside the unlikelihood of a rescue taking that long in today’s digital world, just as we must buy into the fact that absolutely no one in law enforcement or zoning knew about a cabin in the woods, however remote. Be that as it may, we find a now eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and six-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), both caked in dirt and having turned feral. It must have been doubly hard for Victoria, who has essentially been blind the entire time. They lived off of cherries, as evidenced by the six-foot-high heap of cherry pits in the middle of the cabin. Now in a welfare clinic under the psychiatric care of Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), Lucas appeals to the courts to grant him custody of the girls. Although this doesn’t please his girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), a rock guitarist without a shred of maternal instinct, she’s willing to go through with it for his sake.
Lucas, Annabel, and the girls move into a house sponsored by the clinic and built specifically for case studies. I have no way of knowing how realistic this is, but let’s not dwell on little things like that. The girls spend much of the earlier portions of the film drawing pictures on the walls of their room, humming lullabies, and saying the word “mama.” Dreyfuss initially believes that Mama was an imaginary friend conjured up by the girls as coping mechanism. A series of events – Lucas’ convenient hiatus from the story, strange sounds coming from the girls’ room, Annabel’s strange dreams, Dreyfuss’ investigative work – make it all too obvious that Mama is actually a malevolent spirit, one that emanates from the walls. Things get stranger and scarier as Victoria, who hasn’t forgotten how to speak, grows closer with Annabel, who becomes increasingly material as the film progresses.
I will not divulge the specifics of who or what Mama is, although if you’re at all familiar with the conventions of gothic ghost stories, especially when the ghost is a woman, chances are you already have a pretty good idea. I don’t have a problem with a film being unoriginal, as long as the filmmakers make the most out of the screenplay’s conventions. “Mama” has its fair share of narrative flaws, but the casting is decent, it’s atmospherically right on the money, and it effectively utilizes unsettling imagery like inky wall splotches and moths that generate spontaneously. I have no idea what the latter symbolizes, if anything, but it most definitely gives the film an appropriate visceral feel. It also allows for an ending that, in its own somber and twisted way, is happy. If there’s one thing horror movies have outgrown, it’s last-minute overkill.