Mama is a wraithlike apparition who is very protective of the adopted daughters she rescued from their depressed, gun-toting father. As such, she’s a reasonably sympathetic antagonist for a supernatural horror movie, even if her protectiveness sometimes takes the form of violence visited upon the girls’ new guardians, and even though she looks a little bit like Ann Coulter (all resemblances to actual persons, living or undead, are of course entirely coincidental).
She also cuts a genuinely freaky figure. In expanding his own extremely effective 2008 short film (also titled Mama) Spanish director Andres Muschietti has wisely retained its signature image of a blurry spectre floating ominously at the end of a dimly lit hallway. As the money shot for a three-minute short film, it was priceless – a creepy tableau – but the feature-length version repeats it so frequently as to render it dirt-cheap.
Muschietti’s feature debut is also dramatically impoverished, trotting out ghost-story clichés without any hesitation: To wit, the opening sequence actually takes place in the proverbial cabin in the woods. There is a nice shivery tone to the early scenes, which elliptically depict the first encounter between Mama and two imperilled toddlers and the pair’s subsequent discovery, five years later, by investigators hired by their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Safely returned to civilization, eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and six-year-old Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) are twitchy, wary and mostly mute – which doesn’t stop Lucas from bringing them home to live with him and his rocker-chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Suffice to say that Mama comes along for the ride, laying low during the daytime and using her former foundlings’ bedroom closet as a base of spooky operations.
Introduced while tensely sweating the results of a home pregnancy test, the tattooed, bass-slapping Annabel doesn’t think she’s ready for kids – especially not half-feral foundlings – and Chastain’s effortless performance goes a long way toward grounding the proceedings in a relatable reality. For the film to work, the audience has to buy into the battle of wills between two maternal figures – one reluctant and vulnerable, the other pathologically devoted and able to pass through walls – and if it sounds like a backhanded compliment to say that the actress holds her own against the supernatural Mama, it’s also true that she’s the only human who leaves any sort of impression. Coster-Waldau’s father figure is a stiff (the filmmakers smartly put him into a coma around the midway point), the little girls are straight out of creepy-cherub casting, and, as a sinister child psychologist trying to exploit the situation for professional gain, Daniel Kash is simply defeated by the role’s head-slapping obviousness.
The film’s long middle section is basically Paranormal Activity sans that series’ handicam aesthetic, as things go bump in the night and the grown-ups take forever to get their act together. There’s also some back-story about Mama’s pre-haunting days, which is predictably tragic and intended to deepen her character, but only undercuts her effectiveness as a bogeywoman. When Muschietti decides late in the game to tug at the heartstrings rather than go for the jugular, it’s the gesture of a filmmaker who is trying to transcend the genre he’s working in. The problem is that his movie barely meets the minimum generic requirements, and thus comes off as pretentious for presuming to hover so airily above them.