The opening scrawl for “Mama” certainly sets the stage for another familiar horror tale in the Guillermo del Toro mold. Text is scribbled over black, declaring the story happened “once upon a time…” and then the film starts, and it’s pretty much all downhill from there. Riddled with clunky exposition, an abundance of horror movie clichés, and marked by a careless attitude towards even a basic internal logic, writer-director Andrés Muschietti’s debut feature – based off his 2008 short film of the same name – is deserving of its January dumping ground release.
After their father kills a couple of co-workers and then their mother, Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, both young performers doing solid work here) are kidnapped by their crazy pa and, following a car accident, they stumble upon a creepy cabin in the woods, where they remain for five years guarded by a spectral figure glimpsed initially in shadow, until they’re discovered. Their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jaime, the sister-banging Lannister, from “Game of Thrones”) is thrilled to find out they’re still alive, and wants custody.
Lucas’ girlfriend, Annabel (our very own woman of 2011, Jessica Chastain), a bass player in a rock band who drinks Heineken, is not so hot on the idea. When Annabel and Lucas win custody of the girls and are inexplicably allowed to move in to the girls' old house that is still empty after five years (one of many gaps in logic throughout the film), Lily and Victoria, now feral and estranged from the world, are followed by the ghost they call Mama that inhabited the cabin. Creepy things then start to happen.
Or more accurately, attempts at creepiness are made, but only delivered on a couple of times. Muschietti occasionally shows a knack for clever framing in the movie’s few highlights. A scene involving Lily playing tug of war with a blanket in her bedroom and another where Victoria cooks breakfast both rely on good timing and the gradual revealing of characters in the same room to unsettle the audience. These rare moments of genuine unease stand out as anomalies in a film so desperate to make the audience jump that the end result is not fear but laughter.
It’s difficult to get scared when you’ve seen all this before, and done much better, even in recent years with “Sinister,” “Insidious” and especially Ti West’s underrated “The Innkeepers.” Those films also didn’t rely so heavily on CGI, if at all, a choice that proves to be a major undoing for “Mama.” It’s still for the most part true in the horror genre that the less you see, the scarier. But Muschietti is too confident in his progressively terrible-looking CG monster. Any time the ghost is obscured, out of focus or in the background, all is well. Once the climax comes around, she’s given way too many close ups, and ceases to be scary. It’s a huge misstep, and perplexing as hell, especially when a flashback/nightmare sequence reveals her back-story, and the “alive human” character of Mama onscreen is also rendered by computers. Even worse, there are no stakes to this monster, as who lives or dies after encountering it seems random, and it can apparently be everywhere at once.
Yet the most unfortunate aspect of “Mama” is it finally proves that Chastain is fallible as an actress. She’s just miscast here as a raven-haired rocker at first reluctant to play the role of mother to her boyfriend’s nieces, but who comes around in the end. This seems like the kind of role she should’ve taken on 10 years ago, before she exploded into one of our very best thespians. While there is an attempt at making an emotional, elegant horror film here, Chastain is simply too good for this film, and frankly looks silly pretending to play bass.
Anyone familiar with Guillermo del Toro’s great films (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Devil’s Backbone”) and J-horror tropes should grow weary pretty quickly of “Mama.” There’s little to take away from it other than a sore forehead from slapping it so much. By the time the ridiculous child psychologist character encounters a government employee with a convenient bounty of useful information, "Mama" just becomes laughable, then annoying. But somehow the ending makes it even sillier. Some may find it ballsy, but this writer just wanted to know what the hell actually happened.
While del Toro’s devotion to shepherding young filmmakers’ debut features is admirable, his stamp of approval as producer on a film, not unlike that of Quentin Tarantino, is by no means a guarantee of quality. Now with “Mama,” his brand as producer has become a little further watered down. Here’s hoping the next talent he discovers hits it out of the park. [D+]