When young sisters Victoria and Lilly go missing deep in the Virginia woods, their uncle Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – better known as Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones – keeps up the search for the better part of five years until they are found in an abandoned cabin completely filthy and unkempt, behaving like feral animals. But how did they survive all those years alone? They are brought back to civilization, and have seemingly lost the ability to speak and behave like normal children. Only after long sessions of therapy does the older sister, Victoria, begin to remember how to speak and recall her life before the woods. The younger sister, Lily, remains nearly mute and bestial as she devours bugs and walks on all fours.
Their Tony Shaloub look-alike doctor explains that the sisters’ anti-social behavior and ability to survive in such conditions is due to an imaginary caregiver they’ve created – a presence they refer to as “Mama.” Little does the doctor know that Mama is no simple manifestation, but a clingy demon-like entity with a grisly past that followed them back from the woods and doesn’t take too kindly to Lilly and Victoria being stolen from her ghostly care.
Lucas agrees to take on the girls under the condition that he and his girlfriend Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain – better known as the lead in the best movie of last year: Zero Dark Thirty – live in state sanctioned suburban housing. The reluctant Annabel, with her jet black hair, copious amounts of eye shadow, and wardrobe from Hot Topic, is the bass player in a punk band while lighthearted Lucas is an artist – occupations and lifestyles deemed by the county court not well suited for raising two mentally fragile young girls. As they give up their professional lives they try to settle into their uncomfortable suburban life, but things don’t go according to plan as Mama begins terrorizing the makeshift family, putting Lucas and Annabel’s lives in jeopardy.
This is the debut feature from Andrés Muschietti (credited in the film as Andy Muschietti), whose only other directorial efforts were a couple short films including the one this was based off of. It is most obviously comfortable territory for Muschietti as the adept pace of the narrative thoroughly sets up a lot of backstory without intruding along the way, and it surely helps that as an audience we are sufficiently spooked from the get go. Muschietti grounds the film in a false suburban idyll with flawed characters, constantly playing with the image of trustworthy maternal bonds between Annabel, the girls, and Mama, while injecting familiar horror tropes that easily fit the details. There’s the cabin in the woods, the creepy little girl with hair in her eyes, lots of framing through doors and windows, and also a whole lot of moths as unsettling signifiers of impending trouble. It’s a great first step overall, and however much of this was Muschietti’s own talent or producer Guillermo del Toro’s we may never know specifically, but I am definitely looking forward to what Muschietti does in the future.
Aside from the half practical/half CGI effects of Mama herself, perhaps the creepiest and most effective image in the movie is of the feral girls themselves trying to get acclimated to normal life. Especially with the little sister, the crooked and jerky movements of the girls register as continually discomforting reminders of their primal state, specifically considering the implication that they have learned this behavior from Mama. Also superb is the eerie lullaby the girls and Mama sing to each other towards and from the walls of the house – it gives me the chills just thinking about it.
Then there are the constantly tantalizing hints that Mama is lurking somewhere off-screen waiting to attack. It’s the Jaws method of teasing references to the main threat and slowly building the anticipation of the inevitable coming terror. In this case, we are given glimpses of the gnarled and shadowy figure of Mama with her darkly angelic floating hair and long grotesque fingers expertly concealed until the right moments. The double-edged sword is that we’ve seen this same kind of character done in horror movies before and once we get a full-bodied look at the demon she just doesn’t live up to the exceedingly creepy image we imagined.
There are a ton of plot holes as well, but appropriately enough the movie begins with a title card reading “Once upon a time…” that allows us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the scenes and scares however implausible they may be. Also, the staticky and exceedingly noisy dream sequences are par for the course in current horror movies like this, and here they only undercut the unique vision of the rest of the movie. Mama is a definite winner if you’re looking for some overbearing-Oscar-contender counter-programming, but in all it’s an expertly handled modern horror film akin to defining contemporary classics like Drag Me to Hell. If you’re up for getting scared in a dark theater and having it last even after you’ve left – look no further than Mama.