If the movies have taught us anything, it's that when you're lost in the wilderness, an abandoned cabin in the woods may not be the life-sustaining shelter it seems.
In the opening sequence of Mama, a car accident leaves Jeffrey (Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his daughters stranded in the snow. They happen upon just such a cabin, and he eagerly takes them inside and starts a fire. But apparently he's never seen a slasher pic, so he's unprepared for the inevitable danger — and of course he's murdered in due time by the spirit who lives in the cabin's walls.
Meet "Mama," who raises Jeffrey's girls, Victoria and Lilly, as near-feral beasts. They'll be recovered five years later through the continued search efforts of Lucas, Jeffrey's identical twin brother. Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), take on the task of caring for the barely verbal children, who hide under beds and skitter around the room like human ghost crabs fleeing a flashlight on the beach.
They're aided by a psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who's ostensibly there to help ease the girls' reassimilation into polite society. Given the girls' stunted development, that wouldn't be an easy task even with experienced, willing parents — and Annabel, reluctant to give up her rock 'n' roll lifestyle for instant parenting, has some distance to go to connect with her maternal instincts. Things are also complicated by the fact that Mama has followed the girls back to civilization, and is jealous of the competition.
When he took the girls into Mama's lair, Jeffrey may have ignored the storytelling conventions at play, but audiences will recognize them immediately — and they go far beyond just the cabin in the woods. First-time feature director Andres Muschietti stuffs a host of traditions from cinema and folklore into Mama and sets the blender to liquefy.
The kids being left in the woods to fend for themselves with a malevolent caretaker recalls "Hansel and Gretel," and you can take your pick of other stories involving children raised in the wild, from Romulus and Remus to Mowgli.
The family psychologist with nefarious motives is but one element from Cronenberg's 1979 classic, The Brood, while the secret behind Mama's attachment to the children is straight out of The Woman in Black. The moth motifs of The Silence of the Lambs come into play, and the swelling music and familial drama of the climax wouldn't be out of place in early Spielberg. Muschietti even visually quotes Kubrick's The Shining right out of the gate, with a helicopter shot of a car making its way along twisting mountain roads.
Surprisingly, this patchwork pastiche often works. The director maintains the somber, chilly tone of '70s horror, which serves to unify all those disparate influences and also helps distract from the often highly questionable decision-making of the characters (another horror hallmark Muschietti doesn't neglect). Let's just say you'll spend a lot of time thinking to yourself, "Don't go in there!" or "Why would he go and investigate that place at night, alone, without telling anyone where he's going?" The contrivances can be eye-rolling, but as a part of a celebration of the film's sometimes cheesy influences, they're marginally excusable.
What more often sinks Mama is, well, Mama herself. Much like another recent homage to a spookier era of horror, 2011's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark — which, like Mama, was executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro — Muschietti's film shows its monster too early and too often. When she's slithering around in the shadows, Mama has the power to make every hair on your spine prickle. But when she's sitting still out in the open, her digital construction seems all too apparent — and more silly than frightening. The film's climactic scene drags out longer than it should anyway, but even more so given that so much of it relies on her unconvincing figure dominating the frame.
When Mama works, it's because of its flesh-and-blood maternal figure. Annabel is the film's foundation, and true to her growing reputation as one of the most committed actors in Hollywood, Chastain throws herself into this material as convincingly as in her Oscar-nominated turn in Zero Dark Thirty. Her journey to find the "Mama" in herself might be as conventional as the other spare parts Muschietti has cobbled together — but then when they're delivered this artfully, it's clear why those conventions exist in the first place.