Expanded to feature-length from his own three-minute short of the same name by director Andrés Muschietti, Mama is the latest film to be championed by horror maestro and executive producer Guillermo del Toro.
At the onset of the financial crisis, struggling businessman Jeffrey (Game Of Thrones’ hottie Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) snaps, killing his business partners and estranged wife before kidnapping his two young daughters, 3-year-old Victoria and 1-year-old Lilly.
Speeding along a snowy road, Jeffrey loses control and skids off into the woods, crashing into a snowdrift. Staggering from the wreckage of his car, Jeffrey and the children take refuge in an abandoned cabin and after building a fire, Jeffrey prepares to kill the girls and himself. But, as he’s about to shoot the girls, a barely glimpsed figure tears Jeffrey from the cabin, breaking his neck. That night, as the girls huddle together by the fire, the mysterious figure returns, rolling cherries across the floor to the hungry children.
Five years later, we’re still stuck in recession and the girls’ uncle, Jeffrey’s artist brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) is still hunting for his missing nieces, employing local hunters to search for them. Just as his money is running out, Lucas’ search team discover the girls living ferally in the woods. Attempting to domesticate them with the aid of psychiatrist Dr Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), Lucas and his punk/goth girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) become increasingly disturbed by the childrens’ fascination with the imaginary friend they call “Mama.” But Mama is far from a fantasy and as the brusque, cynical Annabel slowly bonds with the girls, Mama gets very jealous…
There’s few things scarier than a creepy kid movie. Whether it’s that boy with the bag on his head in The Orphanage, those Aryan aliens from Village Of The Damned, that spooky little psychic kid and the dead twins from The Shining or the Antichrist himself in The Omen, kids in horror movies are just freaky. Scuttling around on all fours, filthy, unkempt, their hair matted, jabbering in their own private language, the feral girls of Mama are so unsettling it’s almost a disappointment when they’re returned to society and all too quickly civilised making way for what is a fairly clichéd but entertaining ghost story. Eschewing the blood, guts and gore of most modern horrors and relying instead on the occasional old-fashioned “It’s behind you!” shock and some genuinely chilling images, Mama is an atmospheric little creepfest, a modern adult fairytale complete with a scary wicked stepmother, deep dark woods and two kids in jeapordy. It just so happens however that the wicked stepmother is a ghost.
As caring uncle Lucas, Coster-Waldau is charming and sympathetic while the normally bland Oscar nominee Chastain is refreshingly brusque as the heroine who’s far from happy about suddenly being saddled with an instant family. In fact, as Mama makes her deadly presence felt and Dr Dreyfuss worries that it may be evidence of a dissociative personality disorder on the part of Victoria (Megan Charpentier), Annabel’s first thought is for herself, asking: “Am I safe?”
Inevitably however, the girls (particularly Victoria) get under Annabel’s skin, thawing her cold heart and awakening her inner maternal instincts and the film is at its best when Chastain and the two girls are warily feeling each other out. The film belongs however to Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse and despite the ghostly goings on and the murderous CGI spectre, the creepiest thing in the film is the bestial Nélisse, her unnerving muttered calls for “Mama,” sure to send shivers up your spine.
It may not be the most original horror flick out there but, despite an unsatisfying climax, Mama is still a dark, stylish, entertaining little rollercoaster ride that’s determined to creep you out.
Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash and Jane Moffat
1 hour 40 minutes
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 22nd February