If you’re looking for a good flick to watch in the middle of the night with the lights out, you could do a lot worse than “Mama,” which is now available for rent from Redbox. Directed by Andres Muschietti, based on his own short from 2008, it starts by showing the disturbing way in which two girls are left parentless at a cabin in the woods. They do end up with a guardian, though, in the form of the mysterious title character.
First, a non-spoiler review: “Mama” has an effective gray-and-brown visual style, it makes good use of framing, and it has solid performances, from the versatile Jessica Chastain to the sympathetic-yet-slightly-off girls. The framing sort of takes a page out of the “Paranormal Activity” playbook, making good use of angles in a house, and the mythology — sometimes explored in flashbacks — is on par with recent genre entries like “The Woman in Black,” “Sinister” and “The Possession.”
But to dig into the more interesting aspects of the film, I’ll have to do it behind a SPOILER WARNING. I like how “Mama” riffs on the notion of humans raised in the wild, sort of like the classic first-season “X-Files” episode “The Jersey Devil.” However, it falls short in exploring this angle. For one thing, the girls are only raised by the titular ghost for five years; the older one, Victoria, goes back to normal pretty quickly, although the younger one, Lilly — barely more than a baby when the story starts — is decidedly torn between the two worlds. Considering that a behavioral scientist, Dr. Dreyfuss, is a major character, you’d think this angle would’ve had more prominence. Also, a nitpick: The primitive, almost inhuman movements of the girls are clearly CGI in some scenes, so there’s a disconnect when you get to the human actors.
When I say Lilly is torn between two worlds, I literally mean “two worlds,” because Mama — as we learn in a backstory — is essentially a ghost who can take on various corporeal forms, from large moths to the creepy near-human shape reminiscent of the leafless, branchy trees that seem to bang against every child’s bedroom window on stormy lights. Like many a misunderstood “X-Files” villain, though, Mama needs to suck energy from people to stay alive, so it’s inevitable that she can’t be allowed to live by the good guys. But, like many a horror-movie youth, Lilly actually has a good relationship with the ghost. You gotta love the scene where she’s seemingly playing tug-of-war with her just-behind-the-doorframe sister, but then we see Victoria down the hall. “Mama” nicely plays the “it’s not who you thought it was” trick a couple times.
“Mama’s” ending is intriguingly different from the horror norm, because it essentially stops being a horror movie and switches to supernatural fantasy, with Lilly having to decide between the life she knows with Mama and a new life with her uncle Lucas (the underused Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Annabel (Chastain) in the natural world. Perhaps part of why “Mama” is getting some “The Ending Sucked” Internet posts is that it’s not a tried-and-true horror ending. Instead, it aims to be spiritual and emotional. It worked for me, but I can see how some viewers wouldn’t go for it.
“Mama” could’ve done more with its premise, but at least it’s a competently structured horror flick with lots of good scares, an intriguing villain, likable heroes and a rather daring ending. Films like this are a dime a dozen, but if you like films like this, it’s worth spending a handful of dimes.