Mama feels more quaint than it should. Most mainstream horror films these days seem to fall in to one of two categories -- visually shocking, how-much-can-you-handle torture porn and winky, self-aware slasher flicks that, if they aren't an actual remake of a classic from the 1980s, at least borrow heavily from them.
As a PG-13 thriller that relies on a pair of feral kids and their possibly non-existent forest protector who gives the film its title, Mama doesn't fit neatly in to either bucket. In fact, it probably doesn't fit at all. It is straightforward. It relies mostly on shadows to startle its audience. It feels like what horror used to be before things got so meta. That doesn't mean it's without significant problems, but when you sandwich it in between viewings of Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Unrated, it does stick out for its more traditional approach.
Co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro protege Andres Muschietti,it tells the story of Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a starving-artist couple who have great responsibility thrust upon them when Lucas' missing nieces, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are found in the woods years after their father, Lucas' identical twin Jeffrey, killed his wife and business partners and spirited his daughters away from their home in a half-cocked spiral of self-destruction.
Their mere survival a mystery and their emotional and psychological development a source of great curiosity, the girls are set up in a home with Annabel and Lucas where they can be monitored and studied by Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Between the creepy kids, the wholly unprepared couple, the questionable ethics of Dr. Dreyfuss and the apparent shadow beast wreaking havoc, Mama has a great deal going for it. Unfortunately, the relationship of Annabel and Lucas -- their willingness to care for the girls despite the fact that they are in over their heads -- is not one of those things.
Annabel sticks around ... why exactly? She's a wannabe rock star who, at the beginning of the film, crudely tells Lucas, "Guess who's not pregnant again?" She's not married to Lucas. She's in love with him, she tells a friend, but other than those idle words, it's never clear why she's willing to move to the suburbs and start doing laundry for two severely maladjusted children, much less stay there when things start getting really weird.
Had Annabel's motivations been more clearly established, Mama could have been great. As it is, it's quite pleasing -- the type of horror movie you feel like you could watch as a 12-year-old and be freaked out without being permanently scarred. They don't make many scary movies like that anymore; I'm glad someone is still trying.