Movies about hauntings and possessions all have a couple things in common.
First is a bunch of imagery that’s as arbitrary as it is creepy. Bugs are common in movies about ghosts and demons, because "ew" — bugs. And maybe because bugs hang around the dead. I dunno about that, though. I’ve dug up a lot of graves in my day. Worms? Sure. Maggots? Totally. Crickets and moths? Not so much. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect they put these things in horror movies just to creep us out!
Second, just about every one of these movies has a character whose chief function is to explain what the hell is happening to everyone else. Often, this figure is a professor or an expert on the occult with access to tomes of forgotten lore. “Oh, you know what your problem is? B’Gargoyle, the Sumerian demon of ingrown toenails. He’s possessing your daughter. Here, take the only extant book to ever mention him.”
Despite falling victim to both these cliches and more, "Mama" makes for an effective and frightening ride.
Five years ago, a man snapped, killing his wife and fleeing with their two daughters. He died in a crash. His daughters were never found. But his brother, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, never stopped searching. At last, he finds the girls in a cabin in the woods.
He takes them home to raise them with girlfriend Jessica Chastain. But the girls aren’t alone. They’ve brought a presence with them. The force that kept them alive all those years: Mama.
In many ways, "Mama" is nothing new. Moths flutter around because scary movies have bugs in them, that’s why. The entire story is explained by a tertiary character who has no reason to be an expert on ghosts. And the backstory is as tired as I am, which is very tired, because my dog has had comically intense gastronomical distress for three nights in a row.
And none of that really matters. You know what the setup of “Paranormal Activity” was? “Hey, I think a demon’s trying to kill us. Oops, he killed me.” That’s it.
“Mama’s” story may be very basic, but it’s delivered well, loaded up with creepy imagery from director/cowriter Andres Muschietti.
The storytelling’s a little different, too. Most times, you’re introduced to a set of characters, creepy, unexplained stuff happens to them for half an hour, then they finally admit there’s no rational explanation for the family cat to have started talking like that, leading the protagonist to finally face off with the mysterious monster.
Well, the Mama of “Mama” is right there in the first scene. And we see her repeatedly from there on out — partly obscured by a variety of camera angles and tricks — meaning the story isn’t about whether a bad nasty ghost is there. It’s about what she’s going to do to the living.
As the spooky stuff builds in the margins, a fairly interesting story is going on in the center. The younger of the girls is almost totally feral, while Chastain is in a rock band and opens the movie ecstatic to not be pregnant. They aren’t the deepest characters in the world, but they’re not half bad — and man, the actors here can act.
Together, it’s a movie that’s too familiar in some ways, but gets along just fine thanks to some nice storytelling (Muschietti’s dream sequences are especially good), imaginatively grotesque imagery, and the cast.
The ending’s kind of racy, too. Wait, “racy” isn’t the right word, that implies ghost-boobs or something. No, not “bold,” either, it’s not like it rescued your grandma from a fire. Unexpected? Yes. Unexpected works just fine. So does “Mama.” If you like the paranormal, give it a whirl.