Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take in the orphaned children of his deceased brother when they are found years after their disappearance. They somehow managed to survive in the wilderness alone… or did they?
Basically Mama is a generic ghost story, albeit a very well made one. It borrows a lot of imagery from Japanese horror films such as Ju-On, but manages to eek out an identity of its own as the story progresses. What Mama really has going for it is the fact that:
- It doesn’t hide the fact that there is a supernatural entity involved
- The child actors are extremely convincing and sell the horror
- The ghost itself isn’t evil in nature, just overly protective of its surrogate children
It’s a nice angle on this overly clichéd plot device, and while it is extremely engaging and genuinely effective the final reel basically ruins the entire film.
Jessica Chastain needs to stop playing bitchy characters because she’s being typecast very early on in her career. I’m not saying she’s bad, she’s actually quite good here, but her character is a little unlikable for the first two acts due to her selfish ways and apathy toward the children that she perceives as an unwelcome burden. I did completely believe her character’s turnaround later on, so that says something about her performance.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones fame is actually really good as the male lead, an artist who feels obligated to care for his nieces after their father’s death. I bought his empathy and his determination to keep the children after another family member tries to gain custody. However, some of the writing for his character gets a little wonky toward the end. For example, he is attacked by Mama and sustains major injuries that put him in the hospital. But once he discovers a clue about Mama’s history he rushes out to uncover the truth. Dude, she almost killed you. Leave it alone. But the movie must keep moving forward so he goes for it. Whatever.
The children, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, are pretty fantastic. Like I said earlier, they sell the idea of a ghostly mother figure and that fact that they know that she will attack when provoked, scared or worst of all jealous. They both are very naturalistic even though Nélisse barely speaks (“Mama!”) and were two examples of perfect casting.
Director Andy Muschietti, who also wrote the screenplay with Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, has a great eye and a very even visual style that isn’t overdone and in your face like a lot of modern horror fare. He creates a lot of clever shots (that hallway scene with Lilly playing tug-of-war in her bedroom… with who?!) and genuine scares (some are of the BOO variety) and a nice spooky vibe. He keeps the tension level high throughout and that is more than most horror movies nowadays can brag about. I see him going places in the genre if he decides to stick to it.
The movie has some definite problems as I mentioned earlier. There are logic problems, one character is randomly possessed for no reason and there is a useless doctor that goes off on a side quest to get information on the Mama character and basically is just there to be another person added to the body count. But it’s the stupefying ridiculousness of the overly pretentious ending that stops this flick dead in its tracks. I’m talking mind bafflingly dumb arty crap. I don’t know what the writers had in mind when they came up with this stuff, but it’s frustrating when you have such a great build-up to something epic and the payoff is so damned ludicrous and jaw droppingly stupid. You’ll just have to see it to believe it because just describing it will make my brain leak out of my ears. The idea and legend created as the backstory for Mama is interesting and tragic. It’s just too bad that it isn’t brought to a satisfying conclusion.
In the end I cannot fully recommend this movie. There is a lot to like but, like me, you will probably be completely disappointed with what goes down in the finale. If you’re feeling adventurous then by all means, give it a shot. I won’t judge. Just be forewarned… you might want to throw something at your TV when it ends. I hope you chose the warranty option when you bought it.