Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Andres Muschietti's Mama, adapted from his short film of the same name with the support of "presenting" executive producer Guillermo del Toro, opens with "once upon a time" written in a childish scrawl. The fairy-tale signifier isn't really necessary, what with a distressed father leading his young daughters into the woods and happening upon a creaky old cabin—not to mention del Toro's imprimatur, which all but guarantees a story where childhood wonder meets dark folktale horror. The poor father, though, doesn't see the fanciful-horror signs, and he exits the picture by prologue's end. The girls stay in the woods for years, alone—or are they? Well, no, they're not; the movie leaves no doubt as to whether the girls really are protected by a ghostly figure or if they've invented an imaginary guardian called Mama. But after a clear if brief initial glimpse, Muschietti hides Mama in the corners of the frame, just out of sight, as if he hasn't yet tipped his hand. The strategy is a little predetermined, yet unexpectedly effective: it turns out uncertainty doesn't preclude horror-movie anxiousness, at least when it's as well-orchestrated as it is here.
The best horror pictures generate that anxiety from real-life fears and insecurities, and for a while it seems like Mama will toy with modern bohemian ambivalence toward child-rearing. The girls, older Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are found in the forest and wind up with their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Lucas jumps at the opportunity to prove his mettle, moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a family-ready house; Annabel—the bass player in a rock band—follows dutifully, but without much motherly warmth. Chastain, disguised with a paint-black dye job and Misfits T-shirts, stays angular and uncomfortable well after most screenplays would dictate a developing bond with the kids, and her brusqueness nearly matches Maya from Zero Dark Thirty—refreshing, given how often thrillers depend on the protective mother.
Here, the movie also picks up a few scraps of ambiguity: will this be a "protective mother" horror thriller, or a "kid from hell" horror thriller? The children are semi-feral at first, but Victoria, at least, socializes enough to turn skittish, while Lilly still gnaws at her food like a raccoon and giggles at some unseen figure. Even without parental instincts, Annabel suspects something more sinister behind their behavior, possibly because of the movie's revival of so many tired visual tropes: black moths, rotting walls, tangle-haired ghosts with scuttling walks. The film's origins as a short suggest a calling card for Muschietti; perhaps he employs cliches so as not to distract from his skillful camerawork. He often uses doorframes to compose shots, keeping information just out of Annabel's reach, and mounts one breathless sequence in an extended, complex take that glides up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, with supernatural bravado.
By the time Mama reaches a suspenseful but slightly maudlin climax, Annabel has completed her transition into protective mother mode, even sporting a tasteful turtleneck sweater that hides her band shirts and tats, eschewing a more nuanced treatment of her conflicted feelings about children. Muschietti and del Toro don't have satirical instincts; Annabel's transformation is played straight, and made me wonder if the filmmakers wanted me to root for the selfish hipsters to get with the kid support from the get-go (if so, no dice; Chastain's toughness is too much fun). To their credit, Annabel's bond with the kids feels earned, as do most of Mama's jumps and scares. But after this and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, maybe del Toro could present us up some well-made horror movies that don't revolve around the formation of a new family. Good as Mama is (and it's the best-crafted horror picture in awhile), even its darkest turns strain for emotion.
Opens January 18