Haunted House movies will outlive us all for many reasons. Modern audiences’ undying appetite for them being one and being irresistibly economical to make being another. But ultimately there must just be something primally terrifying about seeing your safest and warmest place (the home) infested by darkness. Even if that is the case though, keeping things dramatically fresh has become very difficult when the core of your movie is the same as all the ones by design. Mama’s play for more original ground is through its villain, going for something more iconic and emotionally rooted than your average ghost in the attic. It’s not entirely successful, but it gives the movie enough about it to at least stand out slightly above the mass.
Mama is the story of two young girls, Victoria (Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse), orphaned and lost in the woods; protected and nurtured by an ethereal and unseen spirit simply known as Mama. When they are found years later, animalistic and silent, they are taken in by their uncle Lucas (Costaj-Waldau) and his decidedly non-maternal rock chick girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). Annabel begins to form a bond with the Victoria and Lily, but Mama isn’t willing to allow her adopted children into the embrace of another family quite so easily. Woodland themed phantasmagoria and J-Horror inspired haunted house shenanigans ensue.
The movie’s attempts to infuse and emotional centre to the movie to go with the jump scares is admirable, Mama maybe a wordless spectre, but she’s one driven by emotion and love and that is a pleasant diversion from the monsters and villains that kill and terrify for 2D revenge or just for the general LOLZ. Impressive too, was the characterization of Chastain’s character. Not the usual born to be a mum archetype you tend to see in this kind of thing, her affection for the kids develops on screen as opposed to being a pre-existing absolute. Chastain is very good here, conveying her early discomfort with mothering the non-house trained kids. Costaj-Waldau, probably known to most as Jaime Lannister from TV’s Game of Thrones, provides solid support in a role that exists somewhat awkwardly on the fringes of the story. I also enjoyed the arc of the kids, raised in the wilderness and struggling to adapt back to conventional living.
The problems come in that in creating slightly more emotional resonance, the more rote jump scares, the banging doors, the goo and the creepy closets just ring a bit more like a stall, keeping us busy until the real meat of the story is gotten around to. It could also be that these sequences have a certain lack of invention to them. Not to mention the way the film deals with its supporting cast, reducing them to sub-standard archetypes, the over-zealous psychiatrist, the mean aunt. It feels creaky, and a little lazy. As well as going against the meaning it’s trying to get out of its core cast. And Mama isn’t quite a strong enough villain to deem any other flaws irrelevant in the way say, Freddy Krueger does for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Mama lacks the confidence to really push its title character the way Wes Craven did with , and therefore it doesn’t quite get under your skin in the same way.
That said, I think there’s a lot here to like and it’s certainly an above average horror movie, one that endeavours to be something more than an empty carnival ride, and while I think a lot of what it is trying to do feels like a rough draft of a better movie, there’s enough highlights and pleasant surprises for it to be worth it.