Ghost based movies, in particular the jump-scare variety, have always had a deficiency in the story and character department. Various recent good entries have tried to compensate for this in different ways, to varying success: Woman in Black tried to compensate with a great set and an unrelenting second act, Sinister tried to make the concept do most of the work. Mama takes the novel approach of having a solid story with good characters. Fancy that.
Quickly rehashing the plot: A business executive, upon finding out he’s bankrupt, kills his estranged wife and kidnaps his two daughters, taking them out into a cabin deep in the woods, intending to commit a murder/suicide. He is stopped by a …thing. 5 years later, the executive’s twin brother (both of them played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau who those of you with good taste might know as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones) finds them, still living in the woods. The thing turns out to be a ghost the girls call Mama, who has been caring for the girls, and follows them home when the brother and his punk girlfriend (Jessica Chastain…no really) take them in on the advice of a watchful psychiatrist.
You’re probably expecting a lot of jump out scares with that premise, and you’ll get them, but the movie is actually more creative than that. The film is very fond of long uncut shots, which are well spaced out and used. There are also a pair of extremely creative dream sequences, with some interesting cinematography and visuals, which help elevate the film as a whole to above average.
Another assist the movie gets is from the actors. Jessica Chastain is excellent, playing a character that is miles away from her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, but is still an interesting one. Her character is reluctant to care for the kids when Mama causes an accident that puts her boyfriend out of action, but manages to slowly summon up her maternal instinct. Her character arc and the acting she puts into it are one of the main ways this movie is better than usual for it’s genre.
Aside from her, the other actors are all doing their jobs well. Nikolaj acquits himself nicely in a secondary role, and between him and Lena Heady in Dredd, I’m hoping more Game of Thrones will get more work (now can we get Peter Dinklage in more things? I mean, we’ve all seen The Station Agent and Death at a Funeral right, so we know how good he is). The two girls are solid, managing to be exceptionally creepy when called for (especially the younger one) but also sympathetic (especially the older one…huh). Special mention must also go to actor Javier Botet under heavy makeup and CGI as Mama.
Aside from that (that it’s well acted and quite scary) there’s not a whole ton to say. It’s about as original as jump scare horror flick can be, it’s mostly well written, the ghost design is nicely original and her goals and backstory make her a tiny bit more interesting than the usual “Cuz evil” explanation for ghosts in these movies. I guess there are some minor issues here and there: There’s some ‘Horror Dumb’ going around, Jessica Chastain occasionally seems to lack peripheral vision and Mama’s ability set can be a tiny bit on the vague side. But those are all par for the course with this genre and none of them are deal breakers.
Horror is rarely, if ever, aiming for the artistic side of things. It’s always nice when it does, but it can often make it through without it so long as it succeeds at what it wants to be. And Mama wants to be a ride, a movie where you jump and shriek, and it’s highly successful at that, and manages to be a well made movie on top of that. New director Andres Muschietti is a definite talent and it’s nice to see Guiellmo Del Toro producing a good horror film after the…unpleasantness that was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (don’t get me wrong, when it comes to directing he’s still coming up aces all around). This is January, which means that there’s a lot of crap clogging up the theaters. Mama however isn’t, and if you’re in the market for a horror flick, you’re probably not going to do better than it. Recommended.
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s decided that Nikolaj’s dog is named Sandor Clegane.