I think you can probably guess which is the better film.
That is not to say Mama is a bad movie. Quite the contrary. But it does suffer a bit arriving so freshly on the heels of Zero Dark Thirty‘s wide release last weekend.
Ah well. Chastain acquits herself nicely in this spooky curio so it shouldn’t hurt her award-winning streak. (Unlike Eddie Murphy’s disastrous January release Norbit a few years ago that all but decimated his chances of winning an Oscar that season for Dreamgirls…if ever).
Like The Others, The Sixth Sense, Let Me In, or even the aforementioned Pan‘s Labyrinth, Mama is more dark fairy tale – sort of postmodern Brothers Grimm – than horror. Which was just fine by me. There is an ethereal quality to this story of two little girls left to fend for themselves in the wood after their investment banker father offs himself to avoid the consequences of shady dealings during the economic collapse of 2008. Five years later, their hippie boho uncle and his girlfriend (that would be Chastain) are alerted that the girls have been found and will be coming to live with the couple. Hijinks ensue.
So how did two feral little girls survive all that time alone? (By the way, both young actresses are quite remarkable and avoid all the goony, cloying child actor cliches.) Well, let’s just say the title character is a warm-hearted if rather vengeful apparition seeking redemption for an infant she lost decades ago by doing all she can to protect her two young charges from the big, bad world. And that includes terrorizing Chastain with various bumps and jolts and noisy shenanigans.
The whole proceedings are Twilight Zone/Outer Limits by way of the CW’s Supernatural. Nothing particularly remarkable or scary or even thought-provoking occurs, but the film has a purposeful, mature approach, establishing a genuinely creepy and compelling atmosphere.
The movie’s finest special effect though is Chastain. Like those A-list actors who would riff for Rod Serling for 30 minutes weekly in the 1960s, Chastain sells the silly subject matter, elevating what could have been awkward PG-13 goth drama to an interesting (if ultimately forgettable) allegory on familial heartbreak.