If your idea of a scary movie involves screaming teenagers, serrated edged knives and geysers of blood, Mama will disappoint. But for those who favour a good old-fashioned ghost story, bristling with suspense, this film should be embraced with open arms. Guillermo del Toro is the executive producer, and there's certainly an echo of Pan's Labyrinth in its dark fairy-tale premise.
Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain anchors the story as Annabel, a goth rocker who gets cold feet at the prospect of minding her boyfriend's two young nieces and quickly finds her spine chilled as well. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her little sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) are introduced first, as the innocent victims of a car crash in a snowy mountain forest.
Dad (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the reckless driver who, after killing the girls' mother, walks them to a remote cabin where he plans to off them as well, but before he can pull the trigger, he is consumed by a shadowy figure. Apart from being visually obscured, what makes the spectre so intriguing is that its murderous instinct is balanced by a maternal one.
Five years later the girls are discovered living feral in the cabin and their "cool uncle" Jeffrey (Coster-Waldau with floppier hair) insists on raising them in a new, family-friendly home. Wide halls and tall ceilings also provide the perfect environment for an eerie ambience which steadily builds as Victoria and Lily creep about like preying cats, playing with their 'imaginary' mama.
Soon, Annabel is home alone with the girls with only a nagging suspicion that someone else is lurking. Jeffrey is relegated to a hospital bed after a freak accident, clearly orchestrated by Mama whose presence is suggested by fast-spreading mould and flapping moths. Debuting director Andres Muschietti isn't above using clichés, but he proves that old tricks often work best.
Sound is used to great effect, as is the framing and deep focus camerawork. Muschietti adopts an almost Kubrickian style where big empty spaces encroach on smaller ones, inviting his audience to anticipate the threat before pulling the rug out. Chastain makes the fear infectious in a carefully judged turn, wanting to bolt, but feeling the pressure to stand firm as the responsible guardian.
It's through her thawing relationship with Victoria that Annabel begins to find the courage to face the thing in the wardrobe. Their evolving relationship is captivating to watch and Charpentier is a bright young talent, gradually tamed and reverting back to the wounded child who was left abandoned in the woods. Lily is a tougher nut to crack, but Muschietti doesn't reduce her to a little monster.
In a powerful scene Lily finally succumbs to a hug, cutting straight to the heart of what the film is about, as well as other horror films from the Latin school (like The Orphanage) where the absence of a parent invites terror. An operatic cliff-top showdown, enhanced with CGI, lowers the tone by quite a way, but there's still a good chance you'll be crying for your mama before the curtain drops.