Just watch the Mama trailer, and it is obvious this is a different kind of family drama. It's the type that is meant to have you treasure the matriarch of your family while knowing that wronging another could result in a haunting the likes of which you have never seen.
Based on a 2008 short film by Andres Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti, the same duo bring it to the big screen in a full-length version of their story produced by the man with the golden touch, Guillermo del Toro. The director of the upcoming Pacific Rim has had quite a nice run of producing ghost stories after the success of 2010's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
Mama follows Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), two children who wind up abandoned in a remote cabin for five years. When they are discovered, they are freakishly disturbed, but somehow alive. Their uncle, who has been tirelessly searching for them, is thrilled to be reunited, yet it will clearly be one trying task to bring them into normality. What their uncle doesn't know is that his nieces did not come back alone. The ghost, Mama, that minded them for five years -- has come along to wreak havoc.
The little girls' uncle has a live-in girlfriend, Annabel (the very busy and recent member of the 2013 Golden Globe winners club, Jessica Chastain). This is a wildly different role for Chastain. She looks more like Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than anything she's ever played prior. And it is because of her presence that our Mama review can state that it is elevated above the usual dredge of ghost stories that have hit the screen of late.
Annabel plays bass in a band, is covered in tattoos and the last thing she wants to do is be a surrogate mother to these two small girls.
But when the ghost, which had only previously been teased in the film, makes her presence felt with an accident -- the girls' uncle "falls" down the stairs -- suddenly she is thrust into that role. And considering this haunting has taken a very dangerous turn, filmmakers have set up a showdown between a mother by circumstance and the ghost named Mama who simply wants to continue raising these girls.
There's a whole story angle that follows a psychologist who is assigned to help the girls adjust to their new (normal) lives. It doesn't work as well in the scope of the entire film as we would have hoped, but does play a large role in how the film resolves the terror.
Del Toro's fingerprints are all over this movie and that is a very good thing. His vision and Chastain's performance keep it from becoming a run-of-the-mill ghost story. In our Guillermo del Toro interview, he talked about his passion for ghost stories and how they serve as a metaphor for the musings of life. That sentiment is all over Mama and it is better for it.
The film may not set the world on fire, but when it comes to a creep-fest that is unique in the horror genre, one must always reward efforts of true creativity. The feel of Mama will linger with you, much like a ghost.
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