Review: Mama

Fun ghost story, awesome monster, and Jessica Chastain dressed as Joan Jett. What more could you want? 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

There is a curious phenomenon that occurs in all horror films that involve children, in particular the ones that involve children interacting with ghosts: often we'll see our central moppet, usually an adorable little girl, having a conversation with their legal guardian about their “new friend or “imaginary friend,” who has just recently appeared in their lives, usually only a few days after having moved to a new house or hotel or location.

The little girl will intone meaningfully that “Danny is mad” or “Mama wouldn't like that.” We, the audience, know that the little girl has been colluding with the supernatural, and take these statements as grave warnings, but the legal guardian that is listening tends to dismiss these warnings from their moppet's “imaginary friend” to be some sort of hallucination.

Eventually we, and the guardian, get to see the ghostly apparition with our own eyes. The ghost in question is usually a hideous and creepy monster with wet hair, spindly limbs, crackled skin, and a gaping, bleeding head wound or something. They glow, they spit up moths, and they can walk around without touching the ground. They look like a ghost. They are scary.

Let me ask you this: when you were a little kid – say five years old – and you moved to a new house, and found there an occasionally invisible friend with glowing eyes, bleeding head wounds, and a jaw that occasionally disengages to release unholy vermin into the air, would you sit down and play with it? Would you chitter calmly to such a being, learn its name, listen to its creepy stories, and draw crayon drawings of the Thing on the wall of your playroom? 'Cause if movies have taught us anything, it's that little kids love to befriend – and draw crayon pictures of – wispy killer banshees. They love it as much as they like to eat ice cream.

Andrés Muschietti's new feature Mama (based on his 2008 short film, and from the Guillermo Del Toro stable) is about a pair of little girls who were raised in a backwoods cabin for five years by just such a banshee. Following the 2008 financial crisis, their birth father, a businessman of some kind, murdered a few people and absconded to the woods with his girls in a panic. He holed up in a cabin, prepared to kill them and himself, only to be killed by a ghostly presence that was living in that cabin.

The little girls, 3 and 1 respectively, live in that cabin for five years, eating nothing but cherries provided by the presence, killing raccoons, and turning into sub-literate, feral monkey kids. The only person who is looking for them is their uncle Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the same actor who played the father), who eventually finds them and takes them in, much to the chagrin of his kid-hating hipster girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).

Jeffrey and Annabel are given a free house to raise the girls, provided they let the local shrink (Daniel Kash) study their re-integration into civilization. The girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) have, of course, brought something with them to their state-funded home, and soon Jeffrey is in a coma, and Annabel is matching wits with the thing the girls call "Mama" (body by Javier Botet, voice by several actors).

Mama is a spooky and delightful flick. It'll startle you, make you giggle, and provides you with an awesome monster. It's hardly deep, but it's a sight better than other films of its pedigree (I'm looking at you, 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark). I often merely ask that my horror films have good-enough characters; they don't have to be terribly complex in a film that is focused on atmosphere, a cool monster, and plenty of “boo!” moments.

The film's main character is actually Annabel, and the filmmakers deck out Jessica Chastain in a cute punk-rock Joan Jett hairdo, and dress her in Ramones t-shirts, skinny jeans, and the requisite scenester boots and bracelets. Her punk look seems surprisingly authentic, and Chastain gives off the casual f*ck-it attitude of a Siouxsie Sioux, tempered by the actress' well-worn warmness. When the time comes for Annabel to finally face down the monster, you half expect her to wail on the beast with her bass guitar, or stunn it with a loud rendition of a Bikini Kill song while her adoptive charges take shelter.

Sadly, the film is more about how she grows from a cynical young person (hating children seems to be a trademark of the hip young person in their early 20s who is trying desperately to flee any semblance of childhood fun, and plunge into the adult world of drugs, sex, and drugs and sex) into a warmer and more mature human being who can actually care for someone who needs her. This works fine dramatically and emotionally, but it did rob me of a much-desired (although admittedly goofy) punk rock music video finale.

The creature in Mama is the usual groaning spirit seen in many ghost movies before, but stands out because of how creepy the dang thing is. All spindly limbs, ghostly locks, and eerie noises (Mama's bony hands are like tree branches waiting to snag your clothing), the titular ghost creature is a triumph of effects and design. The filmmakers also, very wisely, keep the monster hidden for much of the film; always the right approach in a monster movie. A monster is always going to be scarier the less we see of it. By the time she appears, Mama has already taken up enough cognitive space to be a real screen presence, rather than just another dull-looking digital creation.

Again, the movie is not reinventing horror, but it's an awesome ghost story. For a January release, you could do (and probably have done) a lot worse.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.