Published Jan 17, 2013A marketing campaign focused on the done-to-death horror cliché of the spooky little girl is somewhat of a disservice to Andres Muschietti's above-average, if only slightly, angry ghost flick.
Yes, Mama does prominently feature two creepy young girls tied to a confused, malevolent spirit, but the adult leads, as written by Muschietti, his sister Barbara and Neil Cross, and played by Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Headhunters, Game of Thrones), elevate what could have been a rather pedestrian retreading of typical broken home anxieties.
Efficiently setting the stage with actions explained via background radio broadcasts, a man races home covered in blood to retrieve his two children. The motivation for the unseen violence that claimed the life of the man's wife is tied to the 2011 Black Monday financial crash, though those implications are never further explored.
While fleeing with his little girls, the man crashes his car and the three of them take refuge in an abandoned — cliché alert — cabin in the woods. Only, what fun would it be if the cabin really was uninhabited? Flash forward five years and the man's brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau), is still trying to find his missing nieces (there's a good reason he isn't as concerned about locating his brother though).
Inevitably, the girls are found, having survived "alone," living in a feral state. Just how this is possible is resourcefully expressed via an opening credits sequence composed of children's drawings. Lucas and his punk rock bassist girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), take on the difficult task of caring for the traumatized children, with the aid of psychology department housing.
The mystery of who this "mama" is that the girls speak of and talk to pushes the plot along, but it's the life-altering terror Annabel faces of having to be a mother to children she never wanted that makes Mama a cut above most ghost stories of a similar ilk.
Also, Annabel is a strong woman with attitude to spare — where most female horror protagonists cower at bumps in the night, she confidently explores the disturbances with a knife. That's not to say she's some kind of Ripley-esque, ass-kicking heroine. When it's appropriate to be afraid, she feels fear, but not before reason has been exhausted.
Showing a degree of class, Muschietti opts for fluid cinematography that slowly reveals sinister anomalies over jump scares. Likewise, Fernando Velazquez's score echoes the tasteful skin prickling of Bernard Herrmann, leaving blatantly manipulative, stabbing dissonance for less refined exercises in fear.
There are still too many well-worn tropes wheeled out for Mama to stand out in an overcrowded genre, but by tapping in to the fierce instincts and anxieties of motherhood, Muschietti has made a movie that has some substance in spite of its flaws. (eOne)