Jessica Chastain had a very interesting 2013. After being nominated for an Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty, she showed up looking very different as the rocker girlfriend of a man whose brother murdered his wife and kidnapped their daughters in the Guillermo del Toro produced thriller, Mama. Written by the brother and sister team of Andres and Barbara Muschietti from their original short and directed by Andres, Mama turns out to be a rather standard ghost story, despite it's promising premise, creepy effects and some of the creepiest performances by children since the original Village of the Damned.
Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) has spent the last five years searching for his missing twin brother Jeffrey and his nieces, Victoria and Lily. When the girls are found, feral and half-starved, Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) find themselves their guardians, in housing provided by the psychologist (played by Aliens Pvt. Spunkmeyer, Daniel Kash) who wants to bring the girls back to humanity. Resistant at first, Annabel soon finds herself bonding with Victoria (pretty Megan Charpentier) and eventually, even Lily (so creepily played by young Isabelle Nelisse) finds comfort in her arms. Of course, the girls were not alone all that time and they bring with them an entity they call "Mama," a vengeful spirit with a penchant for moths and over-protection.
The scares in Mama are pretty standard, though the effects used to deliver them are pretty good, if a bit indistinct at times. And there is some very clever camera work - the scene where we see Lily playing tug-of-war with an unseen Mama as Annabel carries laundry down the hall is reminiscent of both DePalma and Polanski. Chastain once again proves her versatility as the badass rocker with hidden maternal instincts, while Coster-Waldau is fine as an obsessive man who spends 1/3 of the movie in a coma. The real treat here is watching Charpentier and Nelisse go to town. I can't imagine an actor as young as Nelisee was able to plumb the depths of weird she manages to attain and must attribute her performance to both good direction and great editing. So, so creepy.
The main problem with Mama is it's script. Filled with gaping plot holes and an ending that was both surprisingly dark and completely unsatisfying, Mama would have better been served by making a choice, instead of a compromise. And the exceptionally cheesy last moment didn't help in the least. Mama wants to be The Others. It ends up being a poor man's version of The Woman in White. Mama joins Don't Be Afraid of the Dark among del Toro's lesser projects.
** (Two Out of Four Stars)
And here's the short that inspired the film: