Andres Muschietti, the Argentinean-born, first-time director, along with his wife, first wrote the story of Mama as a Spanish-language short film back in 2008. The film was generally well-received and thanks to the involvement of horror-maestro and executive producer, Guillermo Del Toro, it has moved to the big-screen as a full-length feature.
However, what might have seemed like a good idea, doesn’t really work all that well in practice. The material they’ve added to the plot doesn’t add up to too much and although Mama‘s story incites some genuine scares, the overall result is deflating.
Highly distressed businessman, Jeffrey (Coster-Waldau), murders his wife and makes a run for it into the mountains. Taking his two daughters – Victoria (Charpentier) and her little sister, Lily (Nelisse) – along for the ride, he chooses a remote cabin in the woods as a perfect spot to hide, but only after seeing that the same fate is brought upon them as well. His plans of murdering his daughters are thwarted, however, when a mysterious figure appears and stops him from doing so.
Five years later, Mama introduces us to Jeffrey’s brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau), who is desperately searching for his brother’s long-lost children. His search soon proves successful, though highly upsetting; the girls have been on their own for too long and are now completely feral and living like animals. Lucas, determined to give the girls a chance of a better life, wins custody and moves the youngsters in with him and his Goth gal-pal, Annabel (Chastain), who isn’t too enthusiastic with the idea of motherhood – let alone take care of two psychologically disturbed girls.
With constant references to someone called ‘Mama’, the girls, with the help of shrewd psychologist, Dr. Dreyfuss (Kash), soon become part of some grand home-experiment. Before you know it, strange noises in the middle of the night, bizarre floating figures and people falling down the stairs start taking over the already derogating plot.
Maintaining a feeling of suspense and tension is something that Muschietti has fallen foul with. Though he manages to infuse some admittedly chilling scenes, most are followed by cheap scares that, unfortunately, seem to be en vogue right now. The follow-through is absent and lots of questions are left unanswered; the unimpressive explanation offered of who this ‘Mama’ character is and why she materialises in the way that she does falls flat.
Some relief, to this otherwise tedious narrative, is provided by the casts, whose performances make up for the story’s disturbing shortcomings. Casting the Oscar-nominated actress, Chastain, was a good move. A grounded and believable performance is delivered and without her, the film doesn’t amount to very much. Charpentier is virtuous in the role of the big sister, and as a beastly, monstrous cheetah-like creature, Nelisse is a delight to watch.
Mama never really manages to get under your skin so to speak. Offering only a handful of scares and zero explanations, this is a run-of-the-mill supernatural horror; we’ve seen it all before.