Scarlet-haired darling of Hollywood Jessica Chastain (she who is in everything) has clearly tired of impressing us with worthy, dramatic Oscar-baiting fare, so here she is, all grunged-up, tattooed and slumming it in a grimy black pageboy wig for first-time director Andy Muschietti’s immensely silly, atmospheric fright-fest. Expanded from Muschietti’s own three minute short, and ‘presented’ by Guillermo Del Toro, Mama is the moderately suspenseful tale of two little girls (the impressive Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) who disappear in the woods on the day their parents were killed. When they are found five years later, mentally scarred and disturbingly feral, they are taken in by their unwitting uncle Lucas (Headhunters’ Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) and his free-spirited, rock chick missus Annabel (Chastain), who quickly twig that there could be something sinister or even supernatural behind their disappearance. When creepy dark damp patches begin to manifest all over their new home, and the girls start conversing with the walls, it’s brown trousers time for this dysfunctional family unit, as they discover that a mysterious, malignant entity known only as ‘Mama’ still wants to tuck the girls in at night…
Muschietti’s debut, though full of fiendish invention and anchored by some memorable performances, is a film in dire need of a much smarter script. Charpentier and Nelisse, are eerily unnerving as the tameless, animalistic youngsters, hissing and crawling around on all fours. However, their indoctrination back into civilised society is ham-fistedly handled and never properly explored – we are expected to believe that the powers-that-be would hand these disturbed children over to their struggling artist uncle, and his nonchalant, indifferent partner who, by her own admission, does not want children. Happy Families it is not. Chastain does fine with the paper-thin character she is given to work with, but motivation and characterisation is non-existent, and her miraculous transformation into lovingly protective matriarch is thoroughly unconvincing.
It’s an odd little film, with plenty of visceral, sinister shenanigans going on, yet characters seem to act almost purposefully dumb. Annabel and Lucas don’t bother to inform each other of the freaky shit going down right under their noses and, aside from the film’s final twenty minutes, neither seems particularly scared, despite the cacophony of scary sounds and army of massive bloody moths invading their shiny new home. The fact that important plot information is revealed to our heroes in the form of dreams should tell you all you need to know about the effort put into the script.
As soon as the kids are settled into their new home, Mama takes us on a non-stop, nonsensical, CGI-fuelled rollercoaster ride into Horror Cliché Central. Muschietti is evidently a keen scholar of the genre, crafting a chillingly ominous sense of atmosphere, with neat camera tricks and ominous, dark visuals suggesting something awful is lurking just outside each frame. Yet, everything feels a little too obvious and familiar, and as characters ask ‘what’s under the bed?’ and are warned not to look in the closet, seasoned horror fans may be forgiven for rolling their eyes. Of course, there’s a mysterious old woman character who knows a lot more than she lets on, and a hackneyed malevolent ‘imaginary friend’ angle that’s been done to death and much more effectively in the likes of The Orphanage and Hide and Seek.
Early scenes of the family getting to grips with their situation do show promise, Muschietti only offering small glimpses of the horror that hides in the shadows, seeming to understand that truly effective horror comes from showing the audience just enough to give them nightmares. Sadly, he blows it, as the film slowly but surely devolves into a cavalcade of woeful, unimaginative, cheesy CGI daftness. So desperate to unleash its bag of assorted visual tricks and treats, the film forgets to properly explain itself or its characters’ motivations.
Mama, herself, is exposed as a shoddy, rotting amalgamate of various horror film nasties, with spider-legs courtesy of The Exorcist, long, dark, dirty hair indebted to The Ring, and bony, twiglet arms and floaty wraith-like appearance in thrall to Harry Potter’s far superior Dementors. We are shown so much of this substandard ghoul, that she swiflty loses her power to frighten, and as her computer generated cracks become apparent during a ridiculously drawn-out, overly melodramatic crescendo, Mama starts to look downright laughable.
It’s a shame, as the film’s first half is serviceable enough, offering a few decent jump scares and ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ moments as Mama begins to make her presence felt. Scenes with the spooky kids opening up to their inquisitive psychologist (Daniel Kash) and later seemingly playing and conversing with thin air are genuinely creepy. However, sudden freaky blasts of sound, designed to make audiences send their popcorn hurtling through the auditorium, are cheap tricks and often completely unnecessary. Mama seems intent on bludgeoning you into submission with its blaring, overbearing orchestral score, and it’s one of those films where you realise you’re supposed to be feeling frightened, long before anything diabolical happens, because the ‘duh-duh-DUH!!!’ music is telling you to, dammit!
Mama is in-your-face, loud and very, very dumb, but its scares do occasionally pack a punch and, creature aside, the film’s innovative visuals are nothing short of gorgeous. File this one next to Sinister and Insidious on that list of brainless modern horror films where lots of scary, visually stunning stuff happens for no reason other than it looks kind of cool. Muschietti joins the likes of James Wan and Scott Derrickson, a generation of directors whose idea of terror is perhaps not as gnarly as they think it is, and who sacrifice any freaky momentum they have built up by simply showing us far too much.
Chastain can hold her head high, safe in the knowledge that this isn’t a total stinker, and audiences switching their brains off at the door, or just going in with suitably low expectations will have a thoroughly average time. Depressingly, stateside horror fans have already flocked to it in their thousands. Now that’s scary.