What is a ghost? Whether or not you believe they exist, we all have a basic idea of what ghosts are supposed to be. One of the persistent notions in various cultures is that a ghost is a person who died with issues he or she did not resolve in life and so their spirits become enormous, mysterious, free-floating emotional existences divorced from corporeal reason. This conception has formed the foundations of good ghost movies and bad ones. Mama, a movie released this year directed by Andy Muschietti, is one of the very good ones.
Where does this conception of a ghost come from? Well, think, if you can, of someone you cared a great deal about but with whom you were rarely, if ever, in contact with, for whatever reason. One of the maddening things about such a circumstance is that the mind automatically tries to fill the void, to paint the darkness with personality. If you parted with the person on bad terms, your mind might automatically, continuously regenerate the unresolved issue creating a feedback loop contrived of emotion antithetical to reason which, of course, would tell you there is no real external stimulus.
Mama plays on this human tendency brilliantly. Most decent horror movies are restrained in how much of the monster they actually show. Mama shows you just enough for most of its running time to let the perception of a personality fester in your mind. It provides clues that let your mind assemble a very distinct personality.
As the film opens, a man who's just lost everything in the stock market, in a state of extreme emotional distress, takes his two small daughters for a crazed drive in the snow. The car skids off the road and the two take shelter in a small, apparently deserted house in the woods.
The man holds a gun to his mouth but decides to murder his children first. Fortunately for the kids, there's a ghost in the house, who they come to know as Mama, who kills their father. Over the course of five years, Mama cares for the children in the abandoned house. We don't see very much of her but we've already got a lot of signifying pieces of data to start to get an impression of Mama's personality and obsessions.
The children, when they're found by men hired by their uncle Lucas, are thin and feral, having survived only on the cherries and moths Mama provides for them. They also move quickly through the shadows as we see Mama moving in the few glimpses we have of her.
Lucas gains custody of the children and with his girlfriend, Annabel, played by Jessica Chastain, they four form a tentative family unit.
This is the first movie in which I liked Jessica Chastain. It's the first movie I've seen where she plays a character who's allowed capacity for self-doubt or assertion--she generally seems to play a cipher. Most of the movie's told through Annabel's point of view and as a young musician in a rock band, she's decidedly reluctant to settle down into the family situation she's found foisted on her. Mama does seem to like her more than Lucas, though, who she quickly puts in the hospital so that it's just Annabel, Mama, and the kids.
As the story progresses and we learn something of who Mama was in life, one notes Mama and Lucas actually aren't so different. This contributes a great deal to the impression of Mama as an entity of big emotions incapable of very sophisticated examination of herself or her situation.
Above all, this movie is an effective use of visuals and mood. It's light on cgi, electing to use makeup and costume to create Mama instead. A decision that pays off in much the way it did for Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro served as executive producer for Mama)--the actor in the costume is capable of human animal nuances and quirks of movement that computers are nowhere close to being able to replicate. It helps to beguile the eye, too, which has learned to spot all sorts of tell-tale qualities of cgi.
In one way or another throughout the film, the characters are negotiating with Mama. But Mama usually manifests only as strange sounds or shadow or as aspects of personality in the children. One gets the impression of Annabel's helplessness, frustration, sympathy, and fear as the negotiation is outside the bounds of corporeal reason. This is how you tell a ghost story.