The psycho mother figure is inextricably bound to the psycho girlfriend trope. Going all the way back to the story of Medea, Jason’s scorned first wife who got her revenge by murdering his fiance and children and then shooting off on a fiery chariot pulled by dragons. She’s a terrifying creation–what should be a source of eternal comfort is twisted into something perverted and untrustworthy and murderous.

And it always comes off as a liiitle sexist. The psycho mommy is often pitted against either a man or another far more appealing woman who ascribes to traditional gender roles and doesn’t step too far out of the box. The psycho mommy thus becomes a transgressor because she is mad and because she is “not normal.” She helps police society’s expectations of motherhood by being a cautionary tale.

Except in Mama. Luther’s Neil Cross and filmmaker Andres Muschietti (with an assist from co-writer and producer Barbara Muschietti) manage to avoid nearly all of the pitfalls of the trope in the effort to tell a scary little story about one woman’s eternal need to be a good mother and another woman’s reluctance to mother anyone at all.

On one side there is Annabel, a surly thirty something. She plays in a band, has a hip “alternative” haircut, and the best news in her day is confirming she isn’t pregnant. She’s averse to motherhood. She doesn’t feel some primal urge to be maternal. The only reason she agrees to help her boyfriend with the kids is because they’re his nieces and he loves them…and they’ll get a free house out of the deal. She is not your traditional heroine, nor is she the woman usually pitted against the psychotic maternal figure. She is, in fact, antithetical to the traditional heroine in a situation like this. She’s a little mean, and not particularly likeable.

On the other side there is the titular Mama, an otherworldly figure condemned in life to a mental asylum in the 1800s. It’s never explicitly stated but she’s clearly intellectually disabled. Through brief glimpses of her life countless horrors are alluded to. She’s a tragic figure, heroic in her tenacity and her desire to protect helpless children, but very child-like herself. Driven to protect because she cannot grasp the concept of a different or better world for the children in her care.

This is a reversal of most horror films, where the villain is cynicism incarnate and the heroine or hero is the optimistic light shining through the dreariness of the film. Mama is, in many ways, a heroic figure, and Annabel is, in lesser ways, a villainous one–at least by popular standards of womanhood.

They’re fascinating riffs on the familiar. Annabel, in particular, is an eminently watchable character. There’s been a lot of buzz around Jessica Chastain for the last two years and a lot of extraordinary directors have given her central roles in their films. But it was Mama that finally had me sit up and notice her. She’s extraordinary in a role that would be very easy to play safely. She doesn’t hesitate to make Annabel a little unlikable so when she does begin to crack and actually care for her charges the journey seems that much more triumphant. Chastain brings an incredibly butch energy to the role, erasing all signs of what we might consider traditionally maternal and she never sways from that. It makes the moments she does manage some connection with the children that much more profound.

It helps that she has two kind of amazing kids to work with. Isabelle NĂ©lisse is unsettling as the youngest girl. There’s always something just a little off and a primal approach to socializing with others that has you worried about her long-term reintegration into society. Megan Charpentier is tasked with the harder job, she has a whole and perfect arc, from this mud covered emaciated creature lurking in the shadows of an abandoned cabin to a young girl at home desperate to protect all those she loves, even the monstrous Mama.

And she is monstrous. Muschietti opted to use an actual guy in a rubber suit to play Mama. There’s little to no CGI so when Mama moves across the screen she’s got a real weight to her. And the guy playing Mama is so slender and flexible that Mama edges dangerously close to the uncanny valley, a place a monster like Mama should be. The horror of the film is all spooks and gotchas and the uncanny nature of its monster is a big part of that.

There’s only one real flaw in this little film, and that’s poor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s storyline. Coster Waldau himself is great. He’s playing identical twins, one kind and paternal, and another completely mad…and paternal. The conflict between Annabel and Mama is mirrored in his roles, but unfortunately he spends half the movie off-screen and his arc feels disjointed, like half of it was cut to bring the film under two hours.

I’m all for breezy fun horror, but this was a rare moment where I actually wish the film had been longer. There are so many good ideas in the movie and the creatives involved are so rock solid that I just wanted it to all keep going. I wanted that domestic drama about an unsure couple suddenly becoming parents, and that Oscar-bait drama about girls raised in the wild and having to reintegrate with society, and yes, I wanted more Mama, scuttling about in the corner of my eye and being both the psychotic mother trope, and the underlying tragedy of the concept.

  • Great review! I’m a lot more interested to see this now than I was.