A new scary movie is the perfect recipe on a cold winter's night, and Mama, a ghost story with just the right mix of creepy and eerie, is tearing up the box office this week. And for good reason — Jessica Chastain again plays an indomitable heroine (as in Zero Dark Thirty) pitted against the dark forces and not only gives a convincing performance, but doesn't have to deal with that rat Bin Laden anymore.
What could be worse that that bearded psychopath, one might ask? How about a hundred year-old ghost who becomes protective spirit to two young girls with no one else to turn to? Their daddy — a Wall Street type who murders some colleagues in a fit of black rage — has kidnapped his poor daughters and is about to kill them and himself when the aforementioned "mama" seeps out of a wall and saves the two little cuties. Huh?
Somehow (and please don't challenge movie logic nor the supernatural looking for plausible "explanations"), the mama-aided girls survive five years in the wild eating cherries and insects and turning into proverbial "wild children." When finally discovered, gingerly attempts to re-civilize the tykes are thwarted by the presence of the Dark One herself, a mother whose own child was taken away from her way back when, and who won't give up her two new "daughters" to interlopers. By the by, the two little girls are terrific, and cute-creepy in a most engaging way.
Those are the bare bones of the story which, on the face of it, is hard to swallow, but given first-time director Andres Muschietti's skill in pacing and tension-building, the film ticks like a fine Swiss watch. There's also no mistaking the influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan's Labyrinth liberally shares themes and imagery with Mama. Specifically, we're talking moths and butterflies, avenging spirits and an anti-authoritarian bent (thus, the dig at Wall Street vipers).
Ms. Chastain plays slightly against type here: as the bass-playing punk rocker/auntie whose undeveloped maternal instincts are soon to be mightily tested, she is not the predictable feminist hero of modern times. In fact, by film's end, the hard-edge wears off and she transmogrifies into a black-wardrobed Donna Reed. Her tough-gal exterior morphs into a fiercely protective spirit — but will it be enough to defeat the mama of all mamas? I highly recommend you discover the answer for yourselves — it's well worth the spooky journey.