'Mama': An Atmospheric Horror Fable With a Frustrating End

Directed by: Andres Muschiette; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: B

Oftentimes, it seems as if films "presented by" directors take that approach solely to draw attention to emerging talents and generate theater turnout, but this isn't exactly the case for the works touted by Guillermo Del Toro, where he often serves as an active producer. Between The Orphanage and now Andres and Barbara Muschietti's Mama, his fingerprints -- entrancing visuals, robust characters, and eerie atmosphere -- can clearly be spotted and noticeably elevate the creations under his wing, while allowing the respective directors' viewpoints to shine through. The inspiration for this particular fable of absent parentage and looming secrets is a three-minute short by the Muschiettis, featuring a disturbing, gangly-armed "mother" who stomps after two children in a dimly-lit home. Extended into a warped study of unlikely mothers and spectral guardians that look over feral daughters, this is a flawed, slight, yet consistently haunting parable that wouldn't appear out-of-place among its presenter's own work.

Mama goes down that well-worn path of dark and quixotic children's horror that Del Toro has brought somewhat to the mainstream, depicting a pair of sisters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), left to fend for themselves in a forested cottage following a car accident. Thought to be lost, but not without being sought by their uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), the girls are rediscovered five years later in that same cottage -- filthy, crawling like animals, and detached from normal emotion and maturity. Despite offers to take the children into more suitable custody, Lucas maintains a stern desire to keep the girls, despite not really having the means to do so. A solution arises in a house built for psychological evaluation, where Lucas and his prickly rocker girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), would look after them while they're under continuous evaluation by psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). A question remains, though: how were the girls able to care for themselves in the wild, and who is this nonexistent "mama" they say looked after them?

Annabel provides a necessary dimension to the story in the form of a headstrong bass player who isn't really built for the domestic-parent lifestyle, or, at the very least, isn't ready for it at this point in her life. She's an interesting challenge for Jessica Chastain: harsher, resistant, driven less by empathy and optimism than her other name-making roles. But she's also crucial to the dramatic backbone supporting the spook tactics to come in Mama; Annabel's ability to adapt to the situation, and her growing pains while trying to be a stand-in mother to oddly-behaving daughters, jumps between frustration with parenting to a young(er) rocker's decision whether to endure the situation or not. Unlike other up-and-coming actresses who fall prey to horror-suspense films that don't do their careers any favors, Chastain not only enhances what's otherwise a contrived slate of scenarios, she becomes crucial to both the eeriness and emotional purpose that the Muschiettis eventually aim for.

The complicated maternal setup works well once the scares emerge in Mama (and once Annabel is forced to care for the girls by herself), providing a levelheaded opportunity for Andres and Barbara Muschietti's ideas to unnervingly creep out of the shadows. Steadily, we learn what's followed Victoria and Lilly from the cottage, and the role ... it served in their life while they were secluded for five years. Their ethereal little secret avoids our field of vision through clever plays on perspective that Antonio Riestra's cinematography achieves -- namely, the mischievous framing of multiple rooms within one shot, relishing who's in each and who isn't. The spacious, creak-and-slam-friendly house provides corners and corridors for Annabel to creep herself out in, while flickering lights and guitar amplifier feedback rattle the nerves through a few unnecessary but heart-thumping parlor tricks. Conventional jump-scares and glimpses into shadowy spaces end up appearing too orthodox for such a distinctive and straight-faced supernatural mystery, but they're polished, austere, and maintain a marvelously macabre atmosphere that begs for "mama" to make its mysterious presence known, a mix of curiosity and trepidation.

Written by the Muschiettis and television scribe Nick Cross, the script sustains its supernatural purposes by focusing on a mystery to be solved about the girls' elusive guardian, as they tiptoe around the evil stirring in the house; in fact, it's rather compelling on those simple terms. Once it goes any deeper than that, though, Mama becomes harder to take seriously. Dark, decaying magical holes in walls, creepy moths, and household accidents deal out visceral scenarios more concerned with unnerving the audience with arty horror instead of allowing the drama to keep a level head. What's more, the characters have that age-old fascination with sleuthing at night just so the darkness can cheaply draw them into powerlessness. Chastain's performance and the undertones about an evolving maternal bond beckon those watching to grasp what's going on, empathize, and care about their well-being -- which does work -- but getting wrapped up in those intentions becomes difficult when the characters are corralled into plot-rigged traps.

Mama struggles to right an uneven balance between inspiration and creative prudence all the way to the conclusion -- a bold, devious, but bizarrely forced culmination on a craggy moonlit bluff, underscored by maternal instincts and the eerie mystery that unraveled alongside the scares. While this is an unapologetic supernatural hybrid of horror and melodrama from start to finish, the melancholy ending crosses a line in both emotionally-charged and unsatisfying ways, plagued with the rough kind of ambiguity that provokes somber questions about the outcome and mandatory moral grayness. Andres Muschietti's film achieves a suitable evolution of Annabel's nature against a supernatural force of domineering parenthood, where stark atmosphere both weathers and warms her, but it comes remarkably close to undermining the effort in one fell swoop of forced misinterpretations and last-minute empathy. It's a good thing, then, that the atmosphere works so well leading right up to it.

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