What makes a thriller good? Is it ingenuity or number of scares? Mama, directed by Andrés Muschietti, dips into the supernatural while still gripping onto such familiar umbrella areas as scary houses and unpredictable children. It’s no fright fest, but it is, for a long time, an intriguing domestic parable. As an exercise in the genre, Mama doesn’t completely redefine its core, but it stretches it to a more limber stage.
In its infant stage, Mama was a mere three-minute Spanish-language short film shot by Muschietti. Half a decade later, Muschietti, along with Neil Cross and wife Barbara Muschietti, have embellished their baby and raised it to feature-length level, and have even steeped it a bit more into the modern world.
It starts out with finance guy Jeff (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who, burdened by the current economic collapse, kills his business partners and estranged wife. He spirits his two daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), into the snowy woods, to a cabin where he plans to off both them and himself. Plans go awry, however, and Jeff’s destitute artist twin brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) spends the next five years searching for his missing nieces.
The girls, now and eight and six years old, are discovered, in a feral, pre-pubescent Nell state. The trauma psychologist assigned to them, Dr. Gerald Dreyfus (Daniel Kash), wants to observe the young girls’ behavior, and he helps enable custody for Lucas and his punk-rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, proving there is no genre nor character type to which she will condescend), completely lacking in maternal instinct, despite the pleas of the girls’ Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat). Though Lucas, who admits that his nieces are the most important thing to him, is pleased by his new role as surrogate father, his new role provides a greater windfall: a house for this new family to dwell in suburban Virginia.
However, just as there are no free rides or free lunches, Lucas’ and Annabel’s new house comes at a steep price as well. These children, as young as they are, also come with plenty of baggage.
You see, the girls have been protected in the cabin by an oblique, spectral force to whom they refer as “Mama,” and though the audience is aware throughout the film, Lucas and Annabel gradually become of aware of Mama’s presence in their house. (One extended shot, in particular, involving Annabel performing the mundane task of laundry, is both a nice example of genre goosing, playful humor, and cinematic prowess – with special credit to director of photography Antonio Riestra). Mama (voiced by Moffat, and created through a combination of live action footage starring the tall Javier Botet and CGI) ), is not necessarily a benevolent figure, however, and soon the onus falls on Annabel to protect young Victoria and Lilly.
It is in this respect that Mama hearkens back to such thrillers as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and the first three installments of the Alien trilogy, with hints of The Ring, Repulsion, Insidious and, naturally, Poltergeist (Lucas and co. are distant filmic cousins of the Freeling family). Muschietti applies all the fears of motherhood in Mama – the selfless protectiveness, the fear of the secrets children may keep – and makes them even more specific to the role of the stepmother, forced to care for young ones whose lives are a mystery and who do not instantly take to her. Chastain, hiding under a Pookie Adams fright wig, charts Annabel’s transition from self-absorbed rock chick (the punk thing pushes credibility) to self-sacrificing mother tiger with as much latitude as the film provides her, which is not an unlimited amount. It would be a reach to ascribe too much layering to Annabel. More memorable are Charpentier and Nélisse, who actually evoke genuine sadness.
Formulaic as they may be, these later moments benefit from psychological credibility and strengthen Mama. It’s the movie’s supposedly scary scenes that are subpar. While Muschietti displays a clear amount of horror know-how and has cribbed from various influences, he hasn’t taken a note from Steven Spielberg’s less-is-more approach in Jaws (done by necessity to deal with a malfunctioning fake shark) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (more strategically done to gradually reveal an unfamiliar creature). We see too much of Mama too early, as occurs in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (both of which were executive produced by horror auteur du jour Guillermo Del Toro), and she begins to lack currency in the scare market. Additionally, Cross’ and the Muschiettis’ plotting lacks finesse. The characters in peril are obvious, so when comeuppances arrive, reactions are neutral at best. And despite Michelle Conroi’s nimble editing, there are very few cuts that will elicit a shriek from the viewer.
Mama is best as an accessible piece of meat-and-potatoes entertainment about the state of the family; those in search of a winter chill will have to look elsewhere.