'Mama' never settles into a cohesive story

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jessica Chastain, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse in "Mama."
January 27, 2013

And you thought Joan Crawford was troubled. For centuries, the titular matriarch of “Mama” has been putting the “home” in homicidal.

As the result of some vaguely explained tragedy, two young girls are left to fend for themselves for years in a remote cabin. When they are ultimately discovered, the feral orphaned girls are entrusted to the care of their uncle (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (played by Jessica Chastain). And while their uncle is thrilled to welcome the girls into his home, his girlfriend is none too excited to be sharing her dwelling with two unexpected visitors. And while many kids have imaginary playmates who help them through childhood, few rely on wrathful, wall-crawling spirits that attempt to murder those around them.

“Mama," the latest film associated with fright fan Guillermo Del Toro, starts as a mysterious thriller, then quickly shifts into a “spooky kid” flick before settling into its weathered skin as a haunted house horror flick. And while each has its fair share of effective frights, it's all as disjointed as the herky-jerky ambulatory ghost of its title.

Del Toro (director of the classic "Pan's Labryinth" and "The Devil's Backbone)" only serves as a producer here, but his fingerprints are all over the film: air vents filled with whispers and moans, little children in jeopardy, insects, haunting nursery songs, etc.

Directing duties are instead handed to first-time helmer Andrés Muschietti, upon whose short film this was based. He has a fondness for sudden appearances of apparitions and some in-house wall wailing that will certainly be enough for a fair share of hungry horror junkies. But there's little else drawn outside the CGI-enhanced "Boo's!!!"

There are many interesting elements to the backstory (the grief-stricken father of the opener, the origin of Mama herself, the adjustment to civilization by the young girls), but it all moves so quickly, the separate stories never jell into a whole, substantive narrative.

For example, after only being the guardian of the girls for a few months (or weeks; we are never sure about passage of time), Chastain's character barks at one of them: "Hey! Wait! What's wrong with you?!" Um. Let's see, Jess. Maybe the girls witnessing the death of their parents? Or maybe the fact that they lived like savage wolves on their own, fending off predators and enduring frosty winters while most kids were cozily watching "Dora the Explorer?!"

And we are never really given a connection to all the events. Minor spoiler: We get a backstory to the ghost, but we never get a purpose as to why she arbitrarily chooses to do what she does, or is able to change her places of haunting. And if the cabin is so remote, why is it decorated like a swinging '60s bachelor pad? And also, did I somehow miss the newsletter that has made moths the new go-to creature of scares? Not since "Godzilla" have those little winged bastards been given so much screen time.

If "Mama" had settled on any one of its twisted tones, it would have been far more effective at delivering the goods. It also wouldn't hurt to have spent a little more time making Mama look a lot less pixel-y, but I won't begrudge the tiny film its budgetary limitations. As it is, there are far too many elements haunting this flick, and as a result, this ghost becomes more and more transparent the longer you look at it.

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