Graced with a simple but rich premise, “Mama” starts off at a brisk pace but eventually runs out of energy and staggers through a perplexing conclusion that tries to be both happy and downbeat at the same time. Rookie director Andres Muschietti adapts his own Spanish-language short film, under the guiding hand of producer and rising horror movie icon Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), the latter of whom has worked as a producer on a number of similar films over the past few years, to varying degrees of success.
“Mama” opens promisingly enough, with a news report of a conflation of the most modern of fears, financial panic combined with a mass shooting. The perpetrator, Jeffrey (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) makes a quick stop at home to kill his estranged wife and kidnap his young daughters before making a run for it. Wiping out on icy mountain roads, the three stumble through the wilderness and happen upon a dilapidated cabin in the woods. (Is there any other kind?) Just as Jeffrey is about to go murder-suicide, something kills him.
Flash forward five years; Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau, natch) has been searching for the girls ever since. They are inevitably found, still living the cabin, having gone almost complete feral. The girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are in need of special care which struggling artist Lucas and his punk rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) can’t afford. Naturally, oddball psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) provides them with a two-story home in order to ensure the girls’ therapy; in reality, he smells a lucrative book deal.
The girls begin to respond and adapt to their new environment, especially the older Victoria; this of course does not set well with the jealous and vengeful Mama, their guardian spirit from the woods. Dr. Dreyfuss is convinced that Mama is figment of the girls imagination’ a result of isolation-induced dissociative personality disorder. Eventually, he and everyone else realize the truth when the inevitable Really Weird Shit starts to happen.
The premise bears a passing resemblance to last year’s “The Woman in Black”; where that movie was anchored by a sub-theme of grief (and Daniel Radcliffe’s doe-eyed expression thereof), Mama is dogged by a distinct lack of emotion. There are plenty of stabs at the heartstrings here, especially as self-absorbed, reluctant mother Annabel tries to find some common ground with her new charges, but the story is suffers from a surplus of cheap melodrama and lack of poignancy.
Chastain, who sometimes comes across as stilted in her roles, is certainly up to the task here, perfectly nailing Annabel’s gradual emotional thaw and stunted maternal instincts, but the material leaves her hanging. Still, she fares better than Coster-Waldau, who is sidelined during the movie’s middle stretch and given little to do in its muddled climax aside from running around in the woods at night. The two young actors opposite them are suitably intense, but it doesn’t take much to make a kid seem creepy, especially when they are darting around on all fours. Everyone else is strictly off-the-shelf stock characters.
Mama herself (a hybrid of CGI and footage of seven-foot contortionist Javier Botet) is supposed to be a grieving mother, but instead plays more like an obsessive and hateful bitch with an exaggerated case of postpartum depression. Granted, she earns a few (but just a few) genuinely scary moments, but is never developed beyond a check bogey monster literally lurking in the closet and under the bed.
Placing children in mortal peril can be a cheap way to generate angst in an audience, but del Toro usually manages to play that card at just the right time in his stories, such as in his superb “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) or in the script he co-wrote for the recent remake of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. Muschietti, co-writing with Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross, however, borrow del Toro’s dark fantasy imagery, insect fetishism, and lyrical approach but can’t quite match his emotional high notes. What we are left with is a stylish but hollow, repetitive ghost story retread stocked with familiar tropes and routine scares.