There are so many stream­ing options avail­able these days, and so many con­flict­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watch­ing. Each Fri­day, The Verge’s Cut the Crap col­umn sim­pli­fies the choice by sort­ing through the over­whelm­ing mul­ti­tude of movies and TV shows on sub­scrip­tion ser­vices and rec­om­mend­ing a sin­gle per­fect thing to watch this week­end.

What to Watch

Mama, a 2013 hor­ror film released dur­ing the sleepy Jan­u­ary movie sea­son. Its ori­gins, how­ev­er, date back to 2008. That’s when “Mamá,” a short film direct­ed by Argen­tin­ian direc­tor Andy Muschi­et­ti and pro­duced and co-writ­ten by his sis­ter Bar­bara Muschi­et­ti, began mak­ing the fes­ti­val rounds. There, it caught the atten­tion of fan­ta­sy / hor­ror direc­tor Guiller­mo del Toro, who lat­er called it “one of the scari­est lit­tle scenes I’ve ever seen.” How scary? This scary:

With del Toro exec­u­tive pro­duc­ing, the Muschi­et­tis col­lab­o­rat­ed with writer Neil Cross (cre­ator of Luther) to expand the short into a fea­ture. That was no mean feat, giv­en its sim­plic­i­ty. What began as a hor­rif­ic vignette became a ful­ly fleshed-out sto­ry in which Jef­frey (Game of Thrones’ Niko­laj Coster-Wal­dau), hav­ing lost his mon­ey in the finan­cial col­lapse of 2008, kills his co-work­ers and wife and kid­naps his two ter­ri­fied daugh­ters. Head­ing into the hills, he crash­es his car and walks to a remote cab­in where he plans to kill his chil­dren, then him­self. But a mys­te­ri­ous enti­ty that lives in the cab­in has oth­er plans, and it clear­ly sym­pa­thizes with the girls.

Flash-for­ward five years. Jeffrey’s broth­er Lucas (also played by Coster-Wal­dau) is on the verge of going broke pay­ing for search par­ties to comb the woods for signs of his broth­er and nieces. First intro­duced sigh­ing in relief at a neg­a­tive preg­nan­cy test, Jeffrey’s girl­friend Annabel (Jes­si­ca Chas­tain) remains sup­port­ive but has no expec­ta­tions that his efforts will come to any­thing. If it did, that might inter­rupt her life of play­ing bass in a garage rock band, a pas­sion she has no plans to give up.

Then, unex­pect­ed­ly, a pair of searchers finds the girls, now ages eight and six, liv­ing in the cab­in in squalor. Both have revert­ed to an almost fer­al state. And though they appear to have been alone, when Vic­to­ria (Megan Char­p­en­tier), the old­er girl, recov­ers her abil­i­ty to talk, she speaks of some­one named “Mama” who looked after the sis­ters dur­ing their time in the wilder­ness. That guardian then begins vis­it­ing Lucas and Annabel in their home.

Why Watch Now?

2017 saw the release of Muschietti’s sec­ond fea­ture, It, which became the high­est-gross­ing hor­ror film of all time. Now comes It Chap­ter Two, which adapts the sec­ond half of Stephen King’s mag­num opus and co-stars Chas­tain.

Cast­ing rumors sur­round every major film adap­ta­tion, but the cast­ing talk around It Chap­ter Two took an unusu­al form. Not only did fans have to con­sid­er stars that might fit the char­ac­ters described by Stephen King, but they also had to con­sid­er who might work as the grown-up ver­sions of the first film’s kid stars. Even so, Chastain’s cast­ing seemed like a fait accom­pli from the start, giv­en her past with Muschi­et­ti and the red hair she shares with King’s descrip­tions of Bev­er­ly and It co-star Sophia Lil­lis. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Chas­tain deliv­ers one of the sequel’s stand­out per­for­mances. But Mama gives her even more to do.

Many of the ele­ments that make Mama remark­able can be found in the orig­i­nal short: the flu­id cam­er­a­work, Muschietti’s facil­i­ty with child actors, the eerie dig­i­tal effects. But the way the fea­ture adds nar­ra­tive and the­mat­ic depth to the scari­ness is what sets it apart, and much of the bur­den of that rests on Chastain’s shoul­ders as Annabel. Trad­ing her flow­ing red hair for a black shag and dress­ing in dark cloth­ing, Chas­tain cap­tures Annabel’s fear of moth­er­hood and a set­tled life, which she views as a more con­crete threat than any spec­tral crea­ture.

The film doesn’t judge for her it, either. One day, she’s liv­ing a cool life in the city in a cramped but funky apart­ment. The next, she’s whisked off to the sub­urbs and tasked with cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment sta­ble and nur­tur­ing enough that the courts will let Lucas keep cus­tody of his nieces. And the girls are no pic­nic, either. Vic­to­ria cow­ers through life, and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) holds fast to the ani­mal­is­tic ways she picked up in the for­est, growl­ing rather than talk­ing and sleep­ing on the floor beneath her sister’s bed. Even with­out a malev­o­lent spir­it harass­ing them, Annabel has her hands full, and her dis­tress and frus­tra­tion give the film’s title an extra lay­er of mean­ing.

Though Mama is a much small­er film than It Chap­ter Two, both Chas­tain and Muschi­et­ti ben­e­fit from the tight­ness. Where some­times the It mon­ster feels too com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed to be threat­en­ing, Mama’s effects lean into their dig­i­tal ori­gins and cre­ate one mem­o­rably unset­tling mon­ster — one that’s some­times weird­ly sym­pa­thet­ic. Chas­tain has space to craft a ful­ly devel­oped char­ac­ter whose jour­ney takes her to some unex­pect­ed emo­tion­al places, and Muschi­et­ti finds a sin­gle dark fairy tale tone and sticks with it from begin­ning to end. (It’s no acci­dent that the film opens with the words “Once upon a time…”) It’s such a strik­ing, con­fi­dent, con­tained movie that it would be a shame if Muschi­et­ti got lost in the block­buster world for good. Hope­ful­ly, like del Toro, he can find his way back to mak­ing small­er-scale films between mam­moth projects.

Who It’s For

Any­one who enjoys It and its sequel will like­ly enjoy this as well. And the crowd that avoids PG-13 hor­ror films on prin­ci­ple owes it to them­selves to give this one a look. It’s exact­ly as vio­lent as it needs to be, and Muschi­et­ti under­stands that spook­i­ness some­times works bet­ter than jolts.

Where To See It

Mama is avail­able to pur­chase on all major stream­ing ser­vices.

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