A mother’s love is unconditional and precious—sometimes to the point of being frightening, and that’s when you feel the constriction in the relationship. This is definitely the case in “Mama,” a thrilling and more comprehensive recreation of director Andres Muschietti’s Spanish short film, “Mamá” (2008). He collaborates with fairy tale and horror genius, executive producer Guillermo del Toro (“The Orphanage,” “Splice”), as well as screenwriter Neil Cross (“Luther”), in order to create this artful mastery of horror versus beauty.
The story takes place in Richmond, Virginia, where the audience is introduced to Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a man in financial ruin who goes on a murderous rampage that leads to the brutal deaths of his business partners and estranged wife. Jeffrey kidnaps his two young daughters and drives through the snow to an abandoned cabin in the woods. As he contemplates whether or not to kill his daughters and then himself, he is abruptly attacked and slain by a mysterious figure (Javier Bovet) in the shadows.
In present day, Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) celebrate the end of the five year search for his nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse), when hunters discover the two girls in the cabin where their father was killed. They are entrusted to the care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), a psychiatrist who offers to aid Lucas in a custody battle against the girls’ maternal aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) on the condition that he and the girls move into a house that has been designated for psychiatric case studies. The couple soon comes to question their familial situation when they are terrorized in their new home by an apparition—whom the children refer to as “Mama”—who is determined to preserve her relationship with Victoria and Lily at all costs.
Muschietti gets creative in the conception of Mama’s character and design, but her physical appearance wouldn’t make you jump out of your seat in fear. The ghostly antagonist scarcely appears onscreen until we are well into the story, and she comes out to extinguish the growing bond between Annabelle and the girls. There were a few scenes, with Mama rapidly rushing towards the screen, which would have looked better shot in 3D, especially if the goal is to scare the audience. At certain points during the film, things take a turn for the humorous, but nothing flat-out ridiculous you might see in a teen horror flick like “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Friday the 13th;” the comicality stems from the mother-and-daughter relationship between Mama and the girls, especially Lily, who engages in games of tug-of-war with the ghoul. I found it funny, in a bizarre way, to sit there in the theater, watching a little girl laugh and play with a paranormal entity instead of screaming or running away.
The ghost may provide the horror in this story, but the real stars are Victoria and Lily, who make the audience feel unsettled throughout the movie; the young actresses’ performances make the trip to the theater worth the price. “Mama” won’t make you literally scream for your mama, but it offers plenty of fright for anyone looking to be creeped out.
Rating: 3.5 stars