Just when you thought that the critically celebrated Jessica Chastain had finally done her first “paycheck movie,” the actress once again proves that she will only participate in cream-of-the-crop projects. “Mama,” while certainly not in the same league of cinematic excellence as Chastain’s other film of the moment, the masterwork “Zero Dark Thirty,” is nonetheless the best PG-13 rated, mainstream horror film since 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell.” It’s a winning combination of a fresh spin on the ghost-story, strong performances, and impressive middle-budget craftsmanship.
As “The Woman in Black” proved last January, it’s no small feat for a filmmaker to create an old-fashioned ghost-story—one of the most played-out genres in cinema—that feels like something we haven’t seen before. But “Mama” co-writer/director Andrés Muschietti accomplishes this through a clever cross-pollination with the “possessed child” sub-genre. Young girls Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are saved from their murderous father by a mysterious spirit, who then shelters them in an abandoned cabin in the woods. When they are found five years later, the kids, who walk like spiders and don’t trust anyone, are assumed to have created an imaginary protector for themselves when they repeatedly address the invisible “Mama.” But little do their new guardians Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) know, this protector is real and doesn’t take kindly to shared custody.
One of the most common deal-breakers in horror films is amateurish acting, which no amount of technical achievement behind the camera can overcome. “Mama” avoids this trap. Chastain is as good as one would expect, no matter how initially off-putting it is to see her in a genre film rather than the usual prestige pic. In an archetypal role wherein most actresses would be reduced to screaming and looking terrorized, Chastain crafts an actual arc for Annabel, whose maternal commitment to the girls builds as events get progressively unsettling. And speaking of unsettling: child actors Charpentier and Nélisse steal the show, creepily portraying characters who are beholden to a moody supernatural force but never becoming so unearthly that we don’t believe onlookers would simply pass them off as mentally ill.
It was smart of filmmaker Muschietti to rely on the girls’ maniacal presences for most of the movie’s fright-factor, because conventional ghost-inflicted scares are so tired that they’re nearly impossible to effectively execute. That’s not to say that Muschietti doesn’t attempt several classic “jump” moments—he does—but rather, that these are included more as a tribute to the genre than a legitimate source of fear. “Mama” is primarily about psychological, not superficial, horror.
The film’s carefully crafted aesthetic, which is dominated by desaturated colors and heavy shadows around the edges of the frame, is also appreciable, especially given the modest $15 million budget. At this price-point, many horror filmmakers employ the cost-cutting found-footage or third-person shakycam styles, but Muschietti realizes that those would cheapen the work. “Mama” couldn’t be farther removed from the “Paranormal Activity” school of filmmaking, treating its visuals as poetry, especially in its final sequence, which while action-packed also achieves a surreal beauty.
“Mama” may not exactly reinvent the wheel for the horror genre or say anything of significance about humanity, but as far as Friday night megaplex fodder goes, it’s superlative. Muschietti proves that a fine attention to the essentials of cinema—story, acting, and visuals—is all a filmmaker must possess in order to deliver a proper entertainment. And for today’s moviegoers, there is no better sign that a filmmaker has paid such fine attention than Jessica Chastain’s willingness to participate in their project.