“Mama”, produced by Guillermo del Toro and starring Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, has a unique, captivating high concept for a horror movie. When two young girls are abandoned in a cabin in the woods, they’re raised by a ghost, who becomes protective of them, following them even after they’re found and reintegrated into society.
For quite a significant portion of its runtime, “Mama” had me pretty absorbed into the story, and even provided a couple of decent startle moments along the way.
Unfortunately, I have to take the entire movie into consideration here, and at the very end, “Mama” flies right off the rails.
During the most recent Financial Crisis, a wealthy exec loses his mind and shoots his wife and another co-worker, before fleeing town with his two little girls. When a car crash forces him off the road, he and the girls seek shelter in a cabin they discover deep in the woods. It’s not unoccupied, though… roaming the woods nearby is a ghost. It’s this ghost who saves the girls from their father’s attempt at the ultimate act of desperation, and then proceeds to care for their needs in the aftermath.
When the girls are finally found, five years later, they’re feral children. The eldest barely recalls how to speak, and the youngest never really has. They’re dirty, they scamper about like animals, and they’re distrustful of people. It takes quite an effort to begin to reintegrate them into society and family life.
Enter Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) the girls’ uncle, and his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), who begin to try to raise the girls. It’s a struggle, obviously, as the children are unaccustomed to civilization. Taking care of them also presents quite a change in lifestyle for Annabelle, who’s used to playing with her band, and wasn’t ready to be a mother figure to anyone. But it isn’t long before the couple realizes that the biggest challenge they face isn’t in socializing the girls, or finding a way to accommodate them into their lifestyle… but that they have to deal with the supernatural entity who has become the girl’s protector.
For the most part, “Mama” intrigued me with its clever concept. The angle of the feral children helped to engage my concern and my interest, as opposed to say… dropping me straight into a traditional ghost story. The film begins (and the trailers show) with the ghost, so that’s not some surprise element, but early on the focus is certainly around the discovery of the girls, and the attempt to bring them back to some degree of normalcy. Cleverly, over the course of the movie, the supernatural element is given a larger and larger role to play, until it’s entirely at the forefront of the film. Jessica Chastain is also a great actress, so the fact that she’s the primary character and focus of the film helps hold your attention as well.
Regrettably, however, the film’s finale does not live up to the rest of the film. It’s an overwrought spectacle that runs counter to the rest of the film’s suspenseful, personal level ghost story. Bombast and cliché both kick in, and the last ten minutes work double time to fulfill the movie’s “Eye Roll Quota”. It’s almost as if they had an entirely different creative team create the conclusion. It was really disappointing, to me, and ultimately forced me to severely downgrade what otherwise would have been a highly recommendable film.