Japanese long-haired vengeance-ghost dynamic meets folkloric tragedy in Andres Muschietti's Mama when two young sisters, 3-year old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 1-year old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are lost in a spooky deserted cabin deep in the woods. Lost with them is a forlorn entity they name Mama, who is trapped between here and ethereal-there, feeding them berries to stay alive and entertaining them as time passes. In the ensuing years, the girls become more feral and forget their parents.
Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the brother of Victoria and Lilly's dad hasn't forgotten, and he eventually finds the girls. As they move from the cabin to their new home with him and their new reluctant mother, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Mama follows; many big moths, miasmic black moldy wall stains that grow, and unsettling creature-induced discomforts ensue.
What is it with moths and wall stains in horror movies these days?
At least here they are given plausability: the moths provide a meal for the girls (berries can only go so far), and the wall stains act as portals for Mama to travel through.
What keeps Mama from devolving into the familiar slap-death histrionics of a long-haired, malcontented ghost with demonic powers and anger management issues are the girls' growing attachment to their new and more tactile mom, Mama's sad life before and after death, and Annabel's nurturing instinct slowly kicking in over her need for punking out with her rock band. A sad moment has Mama removing the older Victoria's new eye-glasses so she can't see how terrible Mama's appearance really is; Lilly, of course, being younger, doesn't remember her life before Mama and bonds strongly with her ghostly mom; being flown around the room for fun helps solidify that bond.
CGI enhancements to Mama and her distorted facial features, combined with bone-cracking contortions only horror movie corpses can do, become more distracting than frightening, but the relationship between mothers and children provides a more thoughtful approach; especially when Lucas is removed from the action early, leaving Annabel to deal with her ambivalent feelings and increasingly dire situation. A clever use of long-hair running around like Cousin Itt provides the best chill-thrill moment.
Eager to learn as much as he can from the children's 5 year ordeal in the woods is psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). A more creative story thread has him shift gears when he realizes Mama is not a figment of the children's imaginations conjured to help them cope with their isolation. Unfortunately, this thread is clipped too soon, in a blatantly script-convenient way, to bring Lucas back into the finale. Getting everyone back to the cabin in the woods turns almost funny as first Dr. Dreyfuss, then Lucas, then Annabel, and finally Mama and the girls converge for a showdown that will certainly annoy those looking for a happier resolution.
But on the positive side, it doesn't leave room for a sequel.
You've got to love any horror movie that dares to do that.
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