He may be promising us a monster versus robots smackdown to remember this Summer with Pacific Rim, but you can always rely on Guillermo Del Toro to regularly slip us ‘rations’ of gothic ghost story horror. Ever since the critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth (2004), the director has had no qualms in drifting into the background and propel emerging talents into the spotlight. Enter Andres Muschietti, as he takes the eerie premise of his 2008 short and expands upon it to mark his cinematic debut.
Kicking off in chilling circumstances, we witness the tragic abandonment of two timid children named Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier/Isabelle Nelisse) as their tormented father Jeffrey struggles to come to terms with the mysterious death of their mother. Fast forwarding half a decade later, they are soon ‘rescued’ from their decadent refuge.
Discovered by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his laid back girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain sporting a drastic rock chick look), they agree to become the legal guardians of the mentally traumatised siblings. Inevitably, Victoria and Lilly’s troubling behaviour proves a stumbling block in them bonding with their new ‘parents’, with a perplexed doctor (Daniel Kash) analysing their every move. Less unexpected however, is the overprotective yet terrorising force lurking within the home influencing their nature.
Taking into account this is Muschietti’s first full length feature, he nails the basics in impressive fashion. The creepy premise is well fleshed out within its familiar trappings creating a strong sense of atmosphere, as Chastain’s gradual progression to becoming a respectable mother figure, mirrors the ramping up of the obligatory scares. Less assured however, is the film’s over reliance on CGI, an increasing common trait of the genre.
The supernatural threat of ‘Mama’ may be well sustained, but it proves to be a classic case of less is more with the figure whilst well crafted, ultimately failing to convince. Her backstory is tinged with tragedy, fully realised in a ‘marmite’ ending that whilst maybe implied as hauntingly beautiful by fans of Del Toro’s back catalogue, it will likely bemuse the less favourable viewer with its fantastical nature.
High on eerieness, light on pure scares. Mama remains a steady and efficient entry anchored by solid performances in particular Charpentier and Nelisse. Just a shame the film eventually suffers an identity crisis.