Guillermo del Toro is a producer and not the director of this strangely lovely ghost story from writer director Andrés Muschietti. But there is a hint of del Toro's sensibility in any case... a touch of the screen poet.
The talented genre filmmaker can inject gorgeous surreal imagery in a comic book movie (Hellboy 2). So one assumes his participation may have elevated what might otherwise be written off as just another domestic ghost story.
In the opening sequence, a disturbed financier (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has evidently killed his partners and his wife, and has kidnapped his two young daughters, taking them to a remote cabin in the woods. Before he can complete his cycle of self-destructive violence, a mysterious entity intervenes.
Five years later, the financier's brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) has kept up his search for his missing family members, only to discover the daughters have been found still living in that remote cabin. They are feral creatures, scuttering all over the cabin like large, nimble rodents.
A self-serving therapist (Daniel Kash) agrees to let the girls live in the custody of Lucas and his punkish, rock musician partner Annabel (Jessica Chastain) in a nice suburban house supplied by the hospital, in exchange for a chance to evaluate them further.
They agree, though Annabel resists the maternal role in which she has been thrust. Indeed, upon meeting the girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), she tells them not to call her "mom" when Lilly looks toward the house and repeatedly calls out "Mama."
Annabel needn't have worried. The girls weren't talking to her.
It turns out a maternal wraith has joined the girls in their new home. This is not a spoiler: The audience knows she is there long before Annabel and Lucas get wise. But in the meantime, Annabel softens in her attitude towards the kids, a development that actually puts her in peril, given the nature of the creature who had kept the girls alive in those five lonely years in the cabin.
Most ghost stories are about guilt and vengeance. Muschietti's thriller operates from a different perspective. The titular spirit in this movie is about maternal devotion that, when challenged, is as fierce and elemental as the usual revenge-from-beyond-the-grave tropes.
These days, it might seem Chastain would be a little over-qualified to play a role like this, but she handles it well enough. It is the young girls in this film who really impress. Charpentier and Nélisse can induce chills as feral tots, and Charpentier in particular manages a tricky character arc, in which her loyalty moves from one unlikely mother figure to another. They hold our attention to the film's startling but oddly beautiful conclusion.
Usually, one shouldn't expect too much from horror movies released in the barrens of January. Mama proves to be a surprising exception to that rule.
Selected excerpts of reviews of Mama.
"Expertly conjured atmosphere only gets Muschietti so far, but there's enough genuine promise here that you're willing to cut this talented newcomer some slack."
- Keith Uhlich, Time Out
"Mama is a reminder that the best chills don't involve chainsaws, blood and guts. Horror is a product of empathy."
- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"It never hits the high notes of Mr. del Toro's own films or successfully weaves between reality and fantasy as it should."
- Rex Reed, New York Observer
Starring Jessica Chastain and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau
Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital.
3 1/2 stars out of five