out of Five
Running time: 100
Watchable horror flick enlivened by stylish direction, some nice ideas and a strong performance from Jessica Chastain, though it overplays its hand a little towards the end.
What's it all about?
Directed by Andrés Muschietti (expanding his own 3 minute 2008 short), Mama begins with a distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) killing his wife and leading his two young daughters to a remote woodland cabin where he plans to kill them and then commit suicide. However, the father mysteriously disappears and the girls are seemingly raised by an imaginary figure they call ‘Mama’ (played by a combination of actor Javier Botet and special effects).
Five years later, the girls (Lilly Charpentier as the older Victoria and Isabelle Nelisse as Lily) are found in a semi-feral state and placed in the care of their uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his rock chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, swapping her ginger locks for a short black wig). And when a suspicious accident leaves Annabel in sole charge of the girls, she starts to believe that Mama might just be real.
Jessica Chastain is excellent as Annabel, creating an unexpectedly powerful bond with the girls that forms the heart of the film; consequently, the scenes where she's gradually accepted by both girls are genuinely moving. There's also strong support from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (effective, but sidelined too early) while Charpentier and Nelisse are simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking as the daughters.
Muschietti has a good feel for a creepy atmosphere, aided by an effectively screechy soundtrack, some decent special effects and some occasionally inspired camerawork, such as a wide shot that reveals the girls playing with Mama while an oblivious Annabel does the hoovering. Similarly, the script has a certain amount of fun playing around with ideas of mother figures and jealousy, particularly in the second half.
The main problem is that the film frequently falls victim to the usual 'Why don't they just get the hell out of there?'-style logic problems and can't resist indulging in a few of the most irritating horror clichés (such as a dark figure running across the foreground while a main character is looking the other way). Similarly, the longer Mama is on screen, the less scary she becomes; as a result, it's a shame the film didn't attempt to split our sympathies between Mama and Annabel, which would have made for a much more interesting and affecting climax than the one we get here.
Mama is superficially similar to Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, another recent Del Toro-produced film, though this is a little more effective, thanks to stylish direction and a superb performance from an almost unrecognisable Jessica Chastain.