Movie Review: Mama (2013)

Mama offers a terrifying ghost, an even creepier child, and touching performances by Jessica Chastain and Megan Charpentier. As horror movies go, this delivers the scares. Andrés Muschietti, who also directed the short film that inspired the full feature, keeps the dread and tension at a slow simmer, and makes an interesting decision for the film's ending.

Mama tells the story of two young girls, Victoria and Lilly, abandoned for five years in a cabin in the woods. Their artist uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, A Game of Thrones) gains custody when the girls are found, feral and undernourished. His rocker girlfriend (Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) stays to help him care for the kids, although she repeatedly declares, "This is not my job." The small "family" moves to a larger home, where the girls appear to play with someone only they can see, who they call "Mama." Cue the terror.

The movie checks off a lot of items in the Horror Movie Tropes list, including jarring music, sudden scares, a vengeful spirit, people acting stupidly, a desolate location, and cleavage. The plot is similar to the one from The Woman in Black, with some Poltergeist thrown in. Mama also has its share of contrivances. I rolled my eyes at a couple of them -- after I left the theater.

But Mama transcends the schlock because of its cinematography and acting. Chastain sells the character of Annabel, who gradually grows into her role as mother/protector to the sisters. Charpentier plays Victoria, the eight-year-old older sister who recognizes who her true Mama ought to be. Tiny French actress Isabelle Nélisse is Lilly, the creepiest kid who ever creeped. For me, the scariest scene in Mama involved Lilly loping up and down a hallway.

Speaking of hallways, Muschietti makes great composition choices when framing key scenes. One in particular stands out: a medium shot with the hallway on the left, where we can see Annabel's room in the distance. The girls' room is on the right, from a closer perspective. Lilly is playing tug-of-war with someone off frame. The previous scene suggests it's big sister Victoria. Annabel walks down the hallway to check on Lilly, and then [REDACTED]. Let me just say that my eyebrows shot up and my eyeball radius expanded.

Even though a seasoned moviegoer like moi can predict what happens next based on camera angle, Mama had me fighting to grip my armrests instead of covering my eyes. Mr.X, the company who did the visual effects for the movie, did a fantastic job with the full rendering of Mama. Lady is jacked up everywhere.

I encourage you to face your fears like I did. Go watch Mama. Then give your mum a hug. Or run screaming from her, whatever feels more appropriate. You decide.

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