Grade: B+ (RENT IT)
THE FREUDIAN FREAKSHOW that is “Mama” features some genuine hair-raisers. The movie’s monster is an undead mother who climbs the walls like a human tarantula and whose undulating hair is rivaled only by the ginger heroine in last year’s “Brave.” Linguistic analysts have shown that the syllabic repetition of “Ma-ma” originates in the infant’s primal pronunciations, in that original cry for food, warmth and only later on, self-doubt and Hallmark cards. The film’s producer is Guillermo del Toro and you need only glance at the poster for his “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) to grasp his adeptness at melding horror and vaginal symbols; he’s like the gothic Georgia O’Keefe. In “Mama,” the film’s orphans – Victoria and little sister Lily – are haunted not just by the titular specter but by oozing crevices that ruin perfectly good wallpaper, out of which flutter moths and Mama herself, sometimes in the form of a vacuum-powered toupee.
“Mama” begins with that most psychoanalytical of scenarios: abandonment. The opening, which precedes a beguiling title sequence of creepy drawings in a child’s hand, is a rush: Victoria and Lily’s father has killed his coworkers, his estranged wife, and whisked away his daughters only to veer off a snowy highway into the valley below. He comes upon a cabin in the woods where he attempts to kill his daughters in cold blood but, low and behold, the cabin is owned and operated by a more powerful and over-protective force: Mama Mia! Fast forward to the aftermath of the girls’ disappearance and their worried uncle played by Nikolaj Coster Waldau of “Game of Thrones” and girlfriend Annabel (a rocker Jessica Chastain). Everything about Chastain’s character is thin; she sports a Joan Jett haircut, plays bass in a band, and curses like a sailor because, well, she’s hardcore. Did I mention she’s a brunette here? She’s also a rival to Big Mama who has managed to transplant herself to the girls’ closet thanks to a pseudo-scientific study of their rehabilitation. (Why, by the way, are there no spy-cams in this joint?) Annabel must play mother to the girls inside a home that looks like the suburban one in “Home Alone” (1990) but, of course, this is a crowded house (with ghosts and things that go bump in the night). Annabel speaks to the film’s central contrivance when she herself asks the good doctor: “This is a joke, right?” And a hokey one at that. Like the Ramones T-shirt she dons to demark her air of twenties cool, her character is standard issue.
What is far from standard is the fact that we see more and more of the ghoulish Mama as her secret is found out. She has her own tragic back-story and when the girls’ surrogate family returns to the very cliff where Mama took her life, we begin to sympathize with the film’s glass-eyed ghoul. (This was Mary Shelley’s conceit in her 1818 Frankenstein.: “I’m malicious because I’m miserable!”) This is anything but standard in your conventional horror flick: the killer isn’t entirely unkind but kind of kin. Here, in “Mama,” we get that old familiar feeling that the thing we all love and fear the most is, well, family.