Directed by newcomer Andy Muschietti and produced by veteran Guillermo del Toro, the new horror movie “Mama” reveals how scary motherhood can be.
One woman who surprisingly finds herself in a parental role is Annabel (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain), a black-haired, raccoon-eyed rock ’n’ roller who once let out a happy “whoop” upon discovering she wasn’t pregnant.
Her boyfriend is Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an artist who spent five years searching for his missing brother and two nieces.
When the nieces — Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and younger sister Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) — are discovered in a cabin in the woods, Annabel and Lucas, ready or not, become parents.
Annabel has a tough time, but the real trouble comes in the form of a ghost — a creature with silvery hair, crooked features and bent limbs, known only as “mama” — who took care of the missing girls.
Interestingly, neither of the two mother figures actually are the girls’ flesh-and-blood mother.
Muschietti, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister, includes scenes of both mothers bonding, or failing to bond, with the girls.
In a terrific spooky sequence filmed in one, long take, Lily, framed in a door, plays in her room. As the shot progresses, it becomes apparent her playmate is not human.
In a touching moment, Annabel warms Lily’s chilled fingers with her breath, much to Lily’s amazement and delight.
But mostly, Muschietti turns the mothering instinct into sheer terror, filling the movie with quite a few genuinely frightening moments based on warped, twisted versions of love, protection and the physical human form itself.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers also devote an equal amount of time to familiar conventions: the inevitable solving of the ghost’s past; an ill-tempered psychiatrist that visits from time to time; and a nasty, tightly-wound aunt that wishes to take the girls away. (She could have been a third mother figure, but the movie doesn’t give her a chance.)
Often, the characters behave stupidly, such as when not one, but two, visit the spooky cabin in the woods — at night.
But special effects take over, and it’s clear that rather than expand upon a primal and scary idea, the filmmakers simply pad the movie with shopworn horror routines. A mama would not approve.