The big "mystery" of the wonderfully atmospheric and chilling ghost story MAMA--namely "Who is Mama?"--isn't really much of a mystery at all. Some details get filled in in the final act, but Mama's identity is spelled out fairly early on. But that question isn't really the point of this Guillermo del Toro-executive produced work. On the surface, the film is about a ghost that seems to protect two little girls living with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of "Game of Thrones") and his decided non-parental girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, being rendered almost unrecognizable in a short-cropped black hairstyle and loads of eyeliner). What the film is really tackling is the much more important connection that forms between the young girls and Annabel, who grows to care for these strange rugrats.
MAMA opens with sisters Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) being taken by their depressed father (also played by Coster-Waldau; I guess the brothers are twins) for a ride on icy mountainous roads after having gone on a shooting rampage at his office and home, killing a co-worker and his wife. His company has sunk into financial ruin, and his next mission is to put his daughters out of their misery. They land up in a rundown cabin deep in the woods, and just as he's about to shoot Victoria, a terrifying specter floats into the room and grabs him, never to be seen again.
Skipping ahead five years, Lucas has never stopped searching for his brother and nieces, and when a small search party find the girls in the cabin still alive but totally feral, the process to bring them back to the real world begins. Victoria adjusts the best because she was fairly grown up, but little Lilly hadn't even learned to speak when she went missing, and is the most unbridled. But how did they stay alive? They were fed and taken care of by something they refer to as "Mama," a presence that the girls' psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) believes is an imaginary friend or something that manifests itself through Lilly.
Annabel is the bass player in a punk rock band and has no interest in having or raising kids. One early scene has her thrilled to death to find out she's not pregnant. But she also loves her boyfriend, and is strangely moved by the girls' plight. Not that she doesn't complain about suddenly being the mother of two. And after a accident at their house sends Lucas to the hospital for a time, Annabel becomes a single mother of two decidedly weird kids. But as time passes, the three ladies grow closer, and Chastain is a strong and subtle enough actor to allow her character to slowly allow these girls into her heart. What surprised me most about MAMA is its emotional component; I'd say there's a 50/50 chance you might cry at the end of this film, and you probably wouldn't be alone.
The Mama creature in all its double-jointed, watery splendor, thanks to Javier Botet (yes, Mama is played by a man), follows the girls to their new home and proceeds to pester the new guardians (and us) via one scary moment after another. But we learn early on that Mama is more than just a scary creature; she's a deadly one as well. And while her motivations are a bit vague, she makes for one of the more terrifying horror film monsters in recent memory.
I don't feel the scenes with the psychologist work quite as well as the rest of the film, but I have a soft spot for scare films that bring in outside help to explain things. There may be too much emphasis on explanation in MAMA, but that doesn't make it any less tense or scream inducing. The low-key elements that act as a harbinger for Mama's appearances are effective, if not especially creative, and the Mama character herself is a beautiful mix of practical and minimal CG (mostly in her hair). There's a dopey subplot involving Lucas's sister-in-law trying to get custody of the kids that goes nowhere, but she's only in three quick scenes, and between the first time I saw the film at Butt Numb-a-Thon about a month ago and the second time more recently, I'd forgotten about her character entirely.
I've been fortunate enough in the last month and half to have seen three quite different performances by Jessica Chastain: her Oscar-nominated work in ZERO DARK THIRTY, this film, and her Broadway debut in "The Heiress." Honestly, she such a chameleon that an untrained eye might have believed these roles were inhabited by three different actors, and not just because of her three distinct looks in these works. Chastain adapts so completely to each role that it's like watching her vanish into each new body.
As Annabel, she rough around the edges at first, slightly sexually aggressive with her man (it's only a PG-13 film, so don't get too excited), and seems eager to defend her new girls against whatever seems to want to take them away. For those who don't frequent horror films, we don't often get performances this strong in them, so when one presents itself, we cling to it. MAMA is sometimes terrifying, often touching, and quite a beautiful film in its grayish hues and wooded settings. First-time feature director Andrés Muschietti (who co-wrote the film with his sister Barbara and Neil Cross) has taken the time to get it right, and cares as much about the audience becoming invested in the fates of these characters (including Mama) as he does about making us jump in our seats. Here's hoping this is a good omen for horror offerings to come in 2013.