Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Written by Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti. Directed by Andy Muschietti. 14A. 100 min. Opens Jan. 18.
With the arrival this summer of his monsters-versus-robots epic, Pacific Rim, five years will have elapsed between Guillermo del Toro’s two most recent directorial efforts. Yet his imprimatur has appeared in many other movies during that time, ranging from a co-writing credit on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to executive-producer duties on several recent films by young directors, including a short by Toronto’s Jovanka Vuckovic. Unfortunately, the most recent entry in the latter category doesn’t add much lustre to del Toro’s reputation as one of our preeminent purveyors of horror, fantasy, and elaborately designed freaky things.
A feature debut by Argentinian filmmaker Andy Muschietti that was shot in Toronto in 2011, Mama tells the not-quite-eerie-enough tale of two young sisters who—left alone after the deaths of their parents—spend several years living in a creepy house in the woods. Though they’re essentially feral by the time they’re reunited with their uncle Lucas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), they’re soon deemed well enough to move in with Lucas and his tattooed rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain in a Joan Jett hairdo). As Lucas and Annabel attempt to give the girls some semblance of a normal life—a difficult task for the un-motherly Annabel—the supervising psychiatrist (Canadian actor Daniel Kash) investigates their memories of “Mama,” a mysterious figure who served as a parental surrogate during their wilderness years and has now manifested in their new home.
In expanding his own award-winning short to feature length, Andy Muschietti mixes elements from several contemporary horror-movie modes. Though often cleverly staged, the haunted-house scares align the film with fellow Poltergeist successors like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Meanwhile, presenting children as evil threats is a favourite ploy in such kidsploitation shockers as Orphan and Let the Right One In. Yet in Mama’s climactic scenes, del Toro’s influence becomes much more evident, especially in the lavish creature effects and the film’s overall shift in disposition from malevolent to melancholy. However welcome it may be to find such developments in an otherwise rote thriller, they mostly serve to emphasize Mama’s incoherence and derivativeness relative to more distinguished (and scarier) predecessors.