If there's one thing that films made or endorsed by Guillermo del Toro have in common, it's a sense of atmosphere. Whether it's the brilliant PAN'S LABYRINTH or the flawed DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the man knows how to set an eerie stage. MAMA tells the tale of two little girls who are found living in a cabin in the woods, feral and wild, seemingly left to their own devices for years following a family tragedy. They are taken in by a kindly uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) in an attempt to assimilate them back into society -- but as it turns out, they may not have been alone after all. The girls constantly speak of a mysterious "Mama," who, it seems, is not keen to let them go.
What began as a short, three-minute film by writer/director Andrés Muschietti is stretched to 100 minutes and the excess padding is occasionally felt. But thanks to that del Toro-approved sense of atmosphere, it is a tense, twisty-turny horror/mystery/thriller that cleverly plays with the idea of the mother-daughter bond on several different levels. The two little girls are outstanding and wholly believable (this, of course, is another common del Toro thread). The titular matriarch is perhaps a bit too in-your-face, but visually, she is damn creepy, evoking classic J-horror without feeling like a retread. The film even manages to pack an unexpected emotional punch at times.
But best of all, this may be the most fun Jessica Chastain has had in her entire career. You might think that such a film would be a step backward for her at this point, but after two years of appearing in countless grave, serious and/or topical films with subjects ranging from racism to terrorism to mental illness to the goddamn meaning of life, she is clearly reveling in the opportunity to play a bad-ass, smart-mouthed, black-haired, tattooed, tank-top-wearing, bass-playing rocker chick in a ghost story. Oh, mama, indeed!