The fact that Guillermo del Toro is an executive producer of “Mama” is a tip-off that this won’t be just another horror film with misbehaving and soon-to-be-dismembered teenagers or a drooling, slime-soaked monster.
And it’s not. But neither is it “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), the producer-director’s brilliant, politically aware gothic fairytale.
“Mama” is a fitfully involving supernatural tale of parents and parental figures both good and bad. The feature film debut of director-co writer Andrés Muschietti, it opens with a distraught and possibly criminal father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) grabbing his two young daughters and driving with them deep into the wintery woods in the Northwest. He leads the girls on foot to an isolated cabin where, soon after their arrival, a large, black-clad apparition swoops down and carries Dad off. Boo-ya, indeed.
Flash forward to five years later. The girls are discovered living alone in squalor in the cabin. They are turned over to the care of their loving uncle, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau), and his goth girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who plays in a rock band.
The children, who seemingly have raised themselves, are feral little creatures, skittering around on all fours and greedily shoving hunks of food into their mouths with their hands. The older one hints to Luke and Annabel, as well as to Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the shrink who’s overseeing their reentry into civilization, that someone she calls “Mama” cared for them during their time at the cabin. The little one keeps pining and calling for this mysterious “Mama.”
Mama indeed exists, though in spectral form, and she soon shows up at Lucas and Annabel’s house. Whether she’s a threat to the girls or to their new guardians or to both isn’t clear at first though, it’s soon obvious, she is no benign presence.
Trotting out tropes familiar from scores of previous horror films — including squeaky doors and hinges, creaking floor boards, mysteriously open windows and visits to a long shuttered nearby mental asylum — “Mama” attempts to ratchet up the suspense about Mama’s origins and intentions. Running on a parallel track is the story of Annabel’s own growing maternal feelings for the girls and her fear that a mysterious creature may be threatening the siblings.
What will happen if the two Mamas meet and which of them will the sisters choose? Annabel’s budding relationship with the girls and, near the end, the answer to those questions turn out to be by far the most affecting and effective parts of “Mama.” The rest is often clanking, by-the-numbers suspense stuff, though sometimes leavened with a sense of humor (as in how Annabel always seems just to miss seeing the kids flying about a room or a ghostly Mama lurking in a closet.)
The Oscar-nominated Chastain sports a short, dark ‘do, tattoos and heavy eye-liner here. She has been far better elsewhere, though it’s not as if she has a lot to work with here other than to look frustrated or fearful. Her performance as Annabel, while adequate, fails to flesh out what feels like a woefully underwritten character.
Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, playing the two young sisters, prove themselves solid little actresses, with Nélisse in particular displaying a disquietingly sly wit. She has a way of looking disdainfully at adults that makes it clear she’s in on a joke, or Mama’s ghostly presence, and the grownups are so, so not.