PLOT: After his company goes belly-up during the 2008 recession, a father- in a moment of panic, kills his wife and takes his two daughters to a secluded cabin to murder them. They’re saved by a terrifying specter- which they dub “Mama”. Four years later, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) manages to find the girls, Victoria and Lily- who, having been left with Mama for four years, are almost feral. Lucas and his girlfriend- Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take them in, but as they start to bond with the kids, the murderous Mama becomes jealous.
REVIEW: MAMA, courtesy of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, is based on a Spanish short by director Andres Muschietti, who makes this his big-screen feature-length debut. This continues del Toro effort to bring Spanish-style horror, like his own (amazing) PAN’S LABYRINTH or THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE to the American mainstream. Like his last effort in this capacity, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK- the results are mixed, although at times, MAMA works brilliantly.
The prelude to the film is superb, with Coster-Waldau (of GAME OF THRONES) playing twin brothers- one of whom is the father that flips out after his life-savings go up in flames. He plays the mounting desperation- and gradual realization of the predicament he’s dragged himself into brilliantly. The introduction of Mama, a not altogether unsympathetic creature, is similarly effective. From here, the film continues to move at an intriguingly understated pace- establishing an involving storyline, populated with refreshingly three-dimensional characters.
As the compassionate Uncle, Coster-Waldau is miles away from the psycho he plays on GAME OF THRONES, and makes for a likable father-figure. Jessica Chastain- who, like Katie Holmes in DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, plays another reluctant mother, here playing a Goth guitarist (with a full-length sleeve tattoo)- who’s not even slightly enthused at the prospect of adopting two possibly deranged children. Of course, Chastain comes around, and her evolution into a strong-willed, loving mother figure isn’t rushed, and made convincing by Chastain’s nuanced performance (there’s no doubt she’s a superstar in the making). As a whole, Waldau, Chastain- and the two kids, played by young thesps Megan Charpantier and Isabelle Nélisse make for a family you’ll no doubt find yourself rooting for- and this is the film’s strongest aspect.
For me- the biggest part of MAMA that doesn’t really work is the horror aspect, which- I suppose, is the most important thing in a genre film, right? While the story is good, and MAMA’s an intriguing figure, I can’t say I was very scared or even slightly put on edge by what I was watching on-screen, which is a shame. The only part of the film that really gave me chills was a spooky dream sequence where Chastain sees Mama’s origins- which is visually striking and appropriately haunting.
Still- too many of the “wanna-be” scary sequences are ho-hum, and the supporting cast is riddled with characters whose demise is so telegraphed it becomes ludicrous. And a twist, where one of the characters tries to solve the mystery of Mama by retrieving an item from her presumed past is far too similar to THE RING, and feels awfully conventional. This wouldn’t really be a problem if MAMA at least had a few good scares, but I can’t say I was ever anywhere near the edge of my seat.
For me, MAMA is a film that teeters on the brink of being good or bad, but the top-notch acting, stylish visuals, and surprisingly unconventional ending make this worth seeing. Still, the fact remains that it’s not particularly scary- although it is “spooky” at times, which I guess is good enough for PG-13 horror these days. In the end, it’s worth checking out.