Andrés Muschietti’s Mama begins with a startling prologue that plays like a short film, which is actually quite appropriate, since the film’s genesis was a spooky, three-minute short Muschietti directed a few years ago. In expanding the narrative into a feature-length beast — he co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Cross and his sister, Barbara — Muschietti has clearly relied on contrivance in fashioning his needlessly intricate narrative, but his sense of craft is exceptional, and the film has no less than three or four utterly brilliant sequences. If the story goes off its rocker during the overly illustrative conclusion, then it’s a small price to pay for a January horror release that is so unexpectedly rich with executional command and atmospheric authority.
The opening, for starters, is a real message-sender. We learn via radio that a man named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from the Norwegian crime-thriller Headhunters) has committed a couple of murders — supposedly a panicked reaction to some financial trouble — and he responds by throwing his two little girls into his car and taking them to an apparently deserted cabin in the woods. The setting here is defined by brittle branches, icy patches of pavement, and onslaughts of snow. Jeffrey’s plan is to shoot his kids and then do the same thing to himself. He removes the glasses of one of his daughters and asks her to look outside, so she won’t be able to see. Just as he’s about to do it, though, a ghost-like creature materializes out of thin air and kills Jeffrey. Then we get our opening credits.
Mama then jumps five years into the future. We’re introduced to Annabel (Jessica Chastain), the spunky, bass-playing girlfriend of Lucas (also Coster-Waldau), the identical brother of the deceased Jeffrey. Lucas hasn’t stopped searching for his two nieces, and, not long after we meet him for the first time, some of the men he’s hired to search the wilderness turn up a result, finding Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) in the very cabin in which their father was killed. They hardly look human: their limbs deformed and out-of-place and their faces covered with the gloom of bodily deterioration, they move and sound sort of like overgrown rodents. There’s an offbeat kind of quality to these moments, because Victoria and Lilly’s behavior is so blatantly extraterrestrial (our knowledge of the prologue helps us make this conclusion), and yet Annabel, Lucas, and psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) have no choice but to assume that they’re merely fighting psychological trauma.
Annabel and Lucas, though very willing, aren’t at all the practical choice to raise these sick kids. She’s a hole-in-the-wall musician, and he’s an artist whose productivity has likely been stunted by this family trauma: they barely have enough money to support themselves. However, Dreyfuss, who grows more and more obsessed with the case over the course of the film, offers them a satisfying option: He will provide them with a family-sized suburban residence, rent-free, as long as he’s allowed continued access to the girls. They agree to the unorthodox case-study situation, and the early warning signs are frequent and glaring. The older Victoria is more receptive to the efforts of her new parents, but Lilly is a completely different story. She sleeps on the floor with tree branches tucked underneath her arms — a much more unconventional nighttime companion than the teddy bear. She never really eats, either, unless we’re talking about bugs, cherries, or paper — she’s a big fan of all three of those things.
Muschietti is working at an extremely high level in this first hour, and his ability to sustain suspense is aided by the fact that the conventions of the genre keep him from showing the title character in her entirety for quite some time. This turns the seemingly enviable suburban residence into a maze of creaky floorboards, off-screen threats, and around-the-corner terror. There is a shot in the upstairs hallway, presented in a single take, that is simply spine-tingling: on the right side of the frame, we see one of the daughters playing tug-of-war with an off-screen entity, while Annabel, on the frame’s left side, is doing laundry. We assume the two daughters are playing with each other — until the second one shows up right next to Annabel, and the tug-of-war game is still going on. Though this scene proves Muschietti capable of filtering scares through silence and stillness, there are others that prove the opposite as well: a haunting death scene lighted only by the flash of a blinking camera is staged wonderfully, as is a nightmare-vision sequence shown from the point-of-view of a scrambling, on-the-run hysteric.
Muschietti isn’t immune to standard tricks, though: Mama has no shortage of flickering lights, shoddy electricity, and foreboding bits of backstory, and the score from Fernando Velázquez occasionally attempts to amplify the content in the most obvious of ways. But Muschietti’s camera has a determined movement to it, always sliding this way and that, remaining one crucial step ahead of its characters. He gets good performances, too. The two child performers make for excitingly combative siblings: Charpentier’s the older one, looking to form a newer, safer life, while Nélisse is painfully naive, stuck in another portal of reality. And Chastain is very cool, leading the charge nicely, quietly. It would’ve been easy for her to play up the character’s exterior characteristics — the short, jet-black hair that recalls Charlize Theron in The Yards, the huge tattoo plastered across her left arm — but she interprets Annabel as a very frank, genuine, sweet personality.