With Guillermo Del Toro's name stuck, in large font, across the posters for the movie, it's clear straight away who Mama is aimed at. Directed by Andy Muschietti, who also co-wrote the movie alongside his sister, and based on a 2008 short film made by the pair, there is every attempt to appeal to the crowd that laps up Del Toro's fantastic combination of fairytale storytelling and creepy horror.
The film's concept is somewhat unique as Annabel and Lucas, played by Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, become unwitting parents to a pair of feral children. Whilst Lucas is glad to have found them alive after so many years (they're his nieces), Annabel, a guitarist for a punk-rock band, isn't so happy.
Whilst the set-up is solid, and the film at first appears committed to using old-fashioned creepiness over jump scares, it trips itself up by immediately revealing the titular Mama within the first fifteen minutes. The film goes on to repeat this mistake; cranking up the uncomfortable tension as the feral girls run about the house like little monkeys, before destroying it all with misplaced CGI scares as Mama jumps out and attacks.
Mama would have been the perfect kind of horror to keep off screen, and funnily enough the film does do that at some points. Early on, Annabel calls out one of the girls, unbeknownst to her we can see the child playing with a sheet, the figure remaining out of sight. It's frustrating and bizarrely contradictory; you can't reveal your monster at the beginning and then hint at it later on, expecting to raise the same level of tension or scare factor.
In fact, the creepiest parts are the ones that don't rely on a supernatural entity. When Annabel looks down the landing one night only to find one of the girls crouched eerily outside her room, this manages to be far more unsettling (and memorable) than a computer-generated corpse-mother.
The plot also has some annoying contrivances that prove to be distracting. Whilst Jessica Chastain's role as Annabel is well acted, the decision to make her an "edgy" punk-rocker, with cropped dark hair and tattoos, feels somewhat unnecessary and forced. Yes, the reason is to stress that she doesn't want to be a mother to the kids, but there are plenty of ways to do that, that don't involve an out-of-place stereotype. Similarly, the film quickly removes Lucas from the equation by shoving him in a mysterious coma after falling down the stairs, it's never adequately explained because it was a rushed way to get Chastain's character with the girls alone.
Alongside the main plot is the ever present "expert" exposition sub-plot. Every ghost movie has it these days, Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, the list goes on. However, while other films relegate the expert to a scene, maybe two, however blunt they may be, Mama makes a whole other story out of it, killing its pace. Moreover, as Annabel begins to bond with the girls, the film's actual scary element, feral children, is lost and so the film becomes just another ghost movie, albeit one with a fairytale slant.
Still, Mama's fairytale twist does remain engaging throughout and, along with solid performances, from both its adult and child cast, manages to separate itself from the morass of haunted house films that have come out in the wake of Paranormal Activity. It's not so much that Mama is a bad film, it's not, and Muschietti makes a committed attempt at producing atmosphere and tension, rather than simply one-note scares. However, the film ruins all of this with some frankly baffling decisions in terms of its directing and plotting, making it more of a missed opportunity, rather than a bad film.