Mama (2013) / Horror-Mystery

MPAA rated: PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements
Length: 100 min.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Isabel Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Jane Moffat, Javier Botet
Director: Andres Muschietti
Screenplay: Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Review published February 2, 2013

Mama 2013 Jessica ChastainTwo young girls, Victoria (Charpentier, Resident Evil: Retribution) and Lilly (Nelisse, Whitewash), are left alive in a seemingly abandoned cabin deep in desolate woods after their disturbed father (Coster-Waldau, Kingdom of Heaven), suffering a major Wall Street-derived setback, murders their mother (and his coworkers) and is taken away by some unknown force before he can off his daughters in a murder-suicide attempt as well. Their musician uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again), along with his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), has been searching for them since their disappearance for five years until he hears news of their discovery, unbelievably still living in that house, malnourished and feral, all but completely unable to relate to human beings after living in isolation for so long. But they weren't alone all that time, as their surrogate mother, a monstrous apparition they've named "mama", has been looking over them, keeping them from her perception of harm. The uncle and his live-in gal get custody of the two girls, but only if they agree to live in a large manor owned by the clinical facility of the girls' shrink (Kash, On the Road), who figuratively licks his lips at the prospect of getting to do some groundbreaking research on children who've grown from near infancy in a wild environment. Trouble brews when mama follows her surrogate daughters to this new location and continues to look after them as her own.

First-time feature film director and co-writer Andres Muschietti expands upon his own Spanish-language three-minute short film with the same premise from 2008, updating the flick for contemporary atmospheric horror audiences who enjoy the backstories of the hauntings as much as they do the jump-scares that inevitably result. Its a Guillermo del Toro (Splice, The Orphanage) production, and while the subject matter is evocative of some of the well-regarded director's works, and the story itself was a few new wrinkles in the malevolent and tortured haunting-in-search-of-redemption subgenre, Mama falls short in terms of complexity and gripping emotional impact, though Muschietti certainly tries in this regard. Rather, it's a fairly standard ghost story, too derivative of other similar works over the last decade (including, notable, del Toro's), and will likely only be appealing for people who want a few hard PG-13 rated scares, a la J-horror remakes like The Ring and The Grudge.

Though I don't intend this as a pun, Mama follows familiar patterns, including the set-up of some pushy, annoying characters who will obviously meet a nasty run-in with the ghost that will likely lead to their demise. The cast that isn't merely fodder for Mama's wrath are cast well, with Chastain, here with short black hair instead of her usual long red locks, giving a decent enough performance as the anguished caretaker for the girls she never wanted while her boyfriend recovers from a nasty spill caused by a jealous Mama. The girls are quite good in their performances as well, which is especially difficult, as they must seem as though they initially have difficulty with basic communication, and in doing such mundane things as walking around on two legs. The girls don't want to be mean to those who are desirous of their well-being, but they know Mama isn't going to like her kids being taken away from her, especially in the emotional connections department. She needs to be needed, and her backstory, as told in interestingly shot, monochromatic dreams among the main characters, is a heartbreaking one.

Mama has some effectively creepy concepts, and a couple of novel ideas, but ultimately fails to break out and deliver a new way to tell its story. It is only recommended for the horror-flick faithful, and perhaps fans of Chastain looking to see her in a performance light she's not been seen to date.

Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo