Great horror films know how to engage the irrational. The movies themselves might have an internal logic — like punishment or revenge — but the best tales of terror introduce some kind of ravening evil that’s likely ridiculous, yet inevitable and dooming, ready to destroy us. Mama is a great horror film, set up with comic-book pretexts. A suicidal father takes his children out to a cabin in the woods to kill them, but the unhappy family runs into a wispy black she-ghost there who takes out father and then raises the kids on cherries and floating tug-of-war games. Five years later, discovered by an uncle, the kids come to live in suburbia, though ghost mommy tags along to provide super-creepy day-care assistance to the nice grown-ups who want to help raise the feral kids. Let this be a lesson, do-gooders.
You could argue that the look of Mama was borrowed from many other sources, though none more obviously than from Guillermo del Toro, who produced newcomer Andrés Muschietti’s film. The ghost creature itself is a floating version of one of Pan’s Labyrinth’s demons — canted the wrong way, double-jointed, and cruelly insistent. What the movie steals from great ghost movies is marvelous restraint. We catch a few tingling drift-bys, but it’s a long time before the monster-ghost-demon-nightmare reveals itself. And when she does, it’s deliciously scary.
The movie is very pretty in ways that matter, too. From the snowy highway of the opening scene to the stern conclusion on a cliff overlooking a backwoods lake, Muschietti makes every backdrop memorable. But don’t suppose that means the movie has a secret kindly heart. Mama is a mean revision of the Halloween classic Lady in White. That film gave its protagonists a chance to appease the haunt. This movie works because it is kindly people versus irrational evil. This ghost is a bad mother.