Guillermo del Toro is the Mexican-born king of Spanish horror films that often inspire more than they satisfy. When he isn’t directing stylish tales of the supernatural (Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos), he produces the frivolous, forgettable work of others (Kung Fu Panda 2). One thing you can rely on: his films always look good. Small wonder then that a number of directors devote themselves to copying his special effects—including Andrés Muschietti, whose new spiritual thriller Mama is as good an example as you’re going to get of style over substance. Mr. del Toro produced it.
Mama has a bad title and a ridiculous premise—a financier goes around the bend, murders his wife and two business partners, kidnaps his two small daughters, Victoria and Lilly, and drags them off to a cabin in the snowy woods to kill them too. But just as he aims the gun and prepares to fire, something from another world sweeps down like a screaming banshee, drags him out of the cabin and chews him to toothpicks. The children are abandoned in the forest, cold and terrified, to live like animals, eating nothing but cherries. Five years later, they are discovered, crawling on all fours, and sent to live with their father’s twin brother Lucas (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his freaky gothic rock guitarist girlfriend, Annabel (yet another ill-advised career move by Jessica Chastain), who, for no plausible reason, agree to act as guardians. They haven’t a clue what they’re in for, which is a spook show that makes Hansel and Gretel look like an Our Gang comedy.
For the past five years, the sisters have survived with the help of something beyond the grave. Now they emerge into the sunlight as feral children who seem to have been raised by wolves, only worse. Victoria, the older child, slowly regains her speech and some normalcy, but her little sister Lilly is so unsocialized she cannot sleep in a bed, wear shoes, eat with a fork or walk on two legs—she crawls on all fours and has a special taste for insects. Whatever it was that kept them alive has followed them out of the woods, hiding in closets, oozing out of a hole in the wall, always ready to kill. They call it “Mama.”
The rest of the movie follows the spidery creature with fangs, tentacles and the snake hair of Medusa as it seethes and hisses and screams through the night, while the equally weird Annabel goes through an implausible character transformation and turns into a loving, nurturing Auntie Em. The ghost drives them all to madness. There’s a lot of hugger-mugger about the ancient tale of a deranged mother who escaped from an asylum with her baby and plunged off a cliff into the sea below. Is that the ghost, trying to reclaim little Lilly as her own? Will anyone live to see a sequel?
There’s no point approaching Mama with anything related to logic. Like most ghost stories, it has a few effectively creepy moments of quiet reflection shattered by loud noises designed to jolt you, but it never hits the high notes of Mr. del Toro’s own films or successfully weaves between reality and fantasy as it should. It’s more like Juan Antonio Bayona’s 2007 thriller The Orphanage, also produced by Mr. del Toro. In fact, it’s a lot more like it—abandoned children plagued by evil spirits in a Gothic haunted setting. A Spanish film shot in Ontario, Canada, doesn’t make much of a case for authenticity. But that’s nothing as baffling as trying to figure out what Ms. Chastain is doing frittering away her time in it. Trading in her red locks for kohl-lined eyes like a raccoon and the vampire look of Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she is the spookiest thing in Mama. Everything else is cable television.
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Megan Charpentier