Beautifully envisioned, badly constructed, the only truly terrifying things in the new horror movie "Mama" are the fake tattoos, short black hair and black T-shirts meant to turn "Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain into a guitar-shredding, punk rocker chick.
That misfire becomes just one more bump in the road when you long for more bumps in the night. Though there are a few frights — a skittering shape that keeps showing up is the best — rather than dishing out pure scary movie chills, first-time director Andy Muschietti serves up a darkly twisted allegory about a mother's protective instincts. Which would have been an excellent framing device, and infinitely more satisfying for grown-ups, if he had pulled it off. He doesn't quite.
You can feel the imprint of the film's guardian angel, executive producer Guillermo del Toro, but his touch is too light to help "Mama" cast the mystical, magical spell of his Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth." Muschietti's 2008 short film, much admired for its striking visuals and its scare as two children try to escape an evil force, caught Del Toro's eye. Soon he and Muschietti began a collaboration to turn "Mama" into a feature-length film. The basic sensibility of the short survives, but the added setups and plots twists are a stretch.
The filmmaker first wrote the script with sister Barbara Muschietti, one of "Mama's" producers. Then it was reworked by Del Toro, and finally polished by Neil Cross, best known for creating the excellent British TV crime drama "Luther." You can almost feel "Mama's" pages passing through all those hands. (Cross and the Muschietti siblings share the credit.)
The opening is a perfect example. To get to the witchy spirit driving the film, two little girls need to end up in a cabin in the woods — alone. But first there is a car haphazardly parked on a suburban street, its door open and radio blaring reports of a Wall Street massacre. A disheveled and distraught dad runs into a bedroom and gathers up his two daughters. Soon they're on a mad drive over icy roads where the desperate travelers are thrown as many non sequiturs as curves. Finally, after a lot of nonsense, dad and daughters stumble across that proverbial horror movie staple, a "deserted" cabin in the woods. We still don't know what is behind the histrionics, and we never will. Because…
The movie flashes forward five years. The girls' cool uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays his vanished brother Jeffrey) has been spending all his money searching for his nieces — Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her little sister, Lily (Isabelle Nelisse). His girlfriend, Annabel (Chastain), tolerates the tiny apartment and his obsession because her real focus is "the band." There are so many things the Oscar-nominated actress can do so very well — comedy a la "The Help," or drama like "Zero Dark Thirty" — but a Joan Jett clone? She's just too refined, or she certainly stays that way in "Mama."
Fortunately before too many guitar sessions, the girls are found and the film starts ratcheting up the strange doings we were promised. The sights, sounds, lights and looks that follow are exceptional with an eerie, earthy beauty to the scariest stuff. The spectral presence at the heart of this story is mesmerizing to watch as it morphs into monstrous shapes big and small. Overall the film is visually stunning with its crack creative team comprising director of photography Antonio Riestra, production designer Anastasia Masaro, the visual effects team led by Edward Taylor, Montse Ribe and David Marti handling makeup and Luis Sequeira costume design.
But perhaps scariest of all is that after only a week or so of being evaluated by psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) and a quick custody battle with Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat, who also provides Mama's voice), Lucas, Annabel, Victoria and Lily are all living in a plush house paid for by Dreyfuss' research institute. Lucas is thrilled; Annabel is resigned; the girls, nearly feral and often walking on all fours, are seriously damaged. So it's hard not to shrink back with them when Annabel snaps — don't call me Mama.
Never fear, Annabel, they weren't talking to you.
Mama (Javier Botet) is one of the most intriguing evil presences to turn up in horror movies in a while. Not only is the character a shape-shifting marvel to witness, there are other frightening elements that attend her. All manner of creepy crawlies begin to fill the house, unexplained marks start appearing on the walls, voices fill the air as do moths — they look too sinister to be butterflies. There is a back story about restless spirits and how the dead, like the living, are condemned to repeat the past. But every time things start to get interesting, the story shifts to something more mundane.
People lie, people die as Mama's rage builds up. Like Mama, Chastain gathers strength along the way as her character is allowed to explore the dicey emotional terrain of motherhood and her growing bonds with the girls. In the fight for the children, the metaphorical mother-child connection becomes a mystical horror show of significant power. Sadly it comes too late to save "Mama."