This post contains minor spoilers.
I already mentioned it briefly in my post about January movies earlier this morning, but I want to show a little more love to "Mama," an uncommonly intelligent and spooky horror film marred only by some occasionally janky creature special effects. It's not just "good by the standards of January movies." It's good by any standard.
Jessica Chastain stars as Annabel, a goth rock band bassist who lives a happily irresponsible life with her artist boyfriend Lucas ("Game of Thrones"' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Their lazy bliss is shattered by a shocking discovery: Lucas' two young nieces, who'd gone missing five years earlier when his brother, driven mad by the collapse of his business, killed his wife and kidnapped his kids. After skidding off a mountain road, the father took the girls, Victoria and Lily, to an abandoned cabin in the woods. In despair, he nearly murders his own children when they're saved by… something. Now, after a half-decade search, Victoria and Lilly, ages 8 and 6, are found, living alone in the same cabin like feral savages. Lucas and Annabel get custody of them, which makes their previous protector, a strange spirit the girls call "Mama," a wee bit jealous.
Chastain is outstanding as Annabel, a no-nonsense independent woman with little interest in motherhood (she's introduced celebrating a negative pregnancy test). And she builds an impressively complicated relationship with Victoria and Lilly, who are played by a pair of very talented (and, at times, very creepy) young actresses named Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse. Co-writer/director Andres Muschietti, expanding his own 2008 short film, plays with all sorts of preconceptions about parenting and motherhood. And he enhances his scares with playful shot selection and dry humor, both of which are exhibited in the terrifying and hilarious scene where Chastain, positioned in extreme background on the left, obliviously does household chores while down the hallway the girls, positioned in the extreme foreground on the right, play with Mama in their bedroom.
"Mama" is scary, but it's got a lot more going for it than just horror. It's funny and perceptive and it's got a shockingly dark ending. Unlike most modern horror movies, which treat its characters like talking cattle waiting for the slaughter, "Mama" is about real people who are just as memorable as the fright scenes or the trick photography. A post by Jed Mayer on Press Play illuminates some of its classical fairy tale constructions, like its use of forests as a place of "danger" and "magic:"
"'Mama' is at its best when it lets the story brood on such elements. The most effective visual effects are those half-seen, barely glimpsed, and shadowy. Mama’s presence is signaled by moths, sometimes singly, other times in ominous swarms. She travels by way of mold and mildew, which spreads from dark corners into the center of walls. These dark spots congeal and darken to become wound-like holes from which slimy claws emerge. The domestic becomes wild, and the children are at once the victims and the bearers of this dark forest magic. Their would-be adopted mother jokes at one point that the girls are 'outdoorsy.' Their faces are always dirty, marked by the rot and filth of their earthy mother. Mama is real because she is dirty."
Mayer says "Mama" starts to falter when the character of Mama becomes a more visible component of the onscreen drama. It's true that Mama isn't the most dynamic visual creation (it's also true that her powers are left largely unexplained, and change as is convenient for the plot). On the other hand, there's a certain softness to Mama that I liked — she raised these children for five years, and her looks are just strange enough to accept that a child would find her beautiful and not upsetting. Plus it's sort of refreshing to find a horror movie where the creature isn't the biggest selling point. "Mama"'s got a lot going for it. You gotta see it.
Read more of "The Grimm Possibilities of 'Mama.'"