Starring Jessica Chastain & Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Directed by Andrès Muschietti
PG-13, 100 min.
Released Jan. 18, 2013
When two little girls left alone in the forest after their father murdered their mother are found five years later in a remote cabin, they’re living in filth, scampering around like spiders, and unable to speak.
The authorities assume they’ve been alone all those years.
Given to the care of their kindly uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his live-in goth-rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), the two nearly feral children, Lilly and Victoria, come with some serious emotional baggage. Lilly sleeps on the floor and eats the moths that have suddenly started appearing in the house. They both giggle and smile at something that Lucas and Annabel can’t see. They talk to the wall, make strange-looking dolls out of sticks and weeds, and sing in their bedroom…along with what sounds like a third grown-up voice.
Things start going bump in the night, lights flicker off and on, a shadowy figure darts about, and Victoria ominously warns Annabel to not open the closet door.
And the kids don’t say much, except “Mama.”
Spooky and stylish, “Mama” hums with the trademark tones of executive producer Guillermo Del Toro, who didn’t direct (as he did with “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy”), but whose influence is evident in the film’s dark imagery, supernatural themes and scare tactics. Admirably, it achieves all its jolts without resorting to any blood, guts or gore. It’s about as “clean” as a horror movie can come.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not capable of making you squirm, gasp…or scream.
As the plot unfolds, Annabel becomes increasingly essential to the story, and we find out more about what—and who—the ghostly, gnarled figure might be. And as the nightmarish figure of “mama” starts showing up with increasing frequency, and ferocity, things get really good and goose-bumpy.
The four young newcomer child actors who play the two sisters (at both stages of their lives) do great jobs. They’re chillingly believable as the innocent little pawns in this skin-crawling creep-out of a custody battle, torn between their bond to the jealous, malevolently protective entity that raised them, and Annabel, the new maternal figure now “competing” for their love and attention.
And Jessica Chastain—is she in every movie these days? Or does it only seem like it?
Hollywood’s busiest actress has certainly been churnin’ ’em out. She’s appeared, with a steadily building buzz, in 10 films in the past two years, including “The Help,” “Lawless,” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which she’s been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.
This solid little spook-fest of a ghost story won’t bring home any awards, for Chastain or anyone else. In another couple of years, it’ll likely be just a little fright-film footnote.
But for now, in the cold, drab doldrums of winter, “Mama” livens things up with more than a few good, old-fashioned scares.