If Mama only hit the beats of your typical haunted house movie and it does hit them, with spine-tingling jump scares and terrifying kids popping up out of nowhere the film would simply suffice as January entertainment. But with the Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain anchoring the movie and director Andrés Muschietti touching it up with unexpected style, the ghastly tale of motherly love conjures up authentic creepiness that should have audiences running home to their... mamas.
After causing a financial meltdown, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes on a rampage, taking the life of his wife, kidnapping his daughters, and driving them to an abandoned shack in the middle of the Virginia woods. Before emotion causes any more bloodshed, Jeffrey is taken out by a mysterious presence in the house the same force that will spend the next five years raising the two young girls into feral, cherry-scarfing munchkins.
Cut to present day, where Jeffrey's twin brother Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) spends his days searching for the missing girls. When they're eventually recovered, Lucas and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) adopt the unhinged kids, a move to which their otherworldly foster parent ''Mama'' doesn't take kindly. Like a demented version of the Julia Roberts/Susan Sarandon film Stepmom, Annabel is quickly thrust into the crosshairs of Mama and the results are wonderfully bizarre.
Mama is bolstered by Chastain's ease for slipping into an unlikable character and connecting the thrills with emotional themes. Annabel doesn't want to be a mom; she despises kids and prefers a life of rocking out with her band and sharing her love only with Lucas. When she's saddled with children, a responsibility that's all but forced upon them by a psychologist eager to study the behaviors of the kids, Annabel resists. When Mama interferes with the new family's abnormal arrangements, it feels rational. She's not just a ghost who screws with the living. Mama is a character in the film, and she has a definitive goal: take back her children.
Muschietti relies heavily on the tropes of the modern horror flick, occasionally overplaying scenes with loud screeches and random appearances of the twitchy younger daughter that could have been ripped straight out of The Grudge. But Mama is at its best when the hand of producer Guillermo del Toro makes an appearance, steeping the film in a mythology that integrates back story, crescendoing to a grand finale. Unlike most haunted house movies, Mama has scope, getting out of the house by following the psychologist as he conducts his procedural-like investigation, traveling back in time to reveal Mama's origins in a moody flashback (styled like an olde timey photograph), and returning to Mama's shack for more spooky thrills. The film is always twisting and turning necessary to keep an overplayed genre fresh.
Even when Mama is going through the horror routines, it's still more exciting than its contemporaries. In one sequence, Muschietti frames the girls' bedroom on one half and a long corridor on the other. As Annabel folds laundry down the hall, the youngest child plays with an off-screen Mama, being lifted up by invisible hands. At the root of Mama is this clash: even when the ghost isn't throwing you down a set of stairs or screaming through a wall, she's there. That is scary.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.