"Mama, can you hear me? Mama can you see me? Mama can you find me in the night?"
I suppose I will reveal up front that no, the Guillermo Del Toro "presented" new horror flick "Mama" is not a musical about a Jewish woman disguising herself as a boy. That said, the lyrics from the musical "Yentl" do describe the new horror film well. Instead of a Jewish woman, we find ourselves focused on a Rocker Chick with responsibility issues learning to take care of two problematic children. That Rocker Chick is the hopelessly miscast Golden Globe winner and Oscar Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain - - normally good in everything she’s in; not so much here. Mostly it’s because she is trying to work with a script that is confused and a mythology that doesn’t make much sense.
The film opens with the crash of the stock market and a man shooting his wife then grabbing his two young daughters and escaping his home. But it’s snowy and they are near a cliff and, whaddya know, they go over it. They survive, but because it’s freezing outside, they escape to an abandoned cabin in the woods. There he plans to kill his kids and then himself, but instead, he is stopped by something preternatural and freaky.
Cut to five years later when the man’s twin brother Lucas ("Game of Thrones" Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is still searching for his brother and nieces. (Really? They haven’t found the car in five years???) He’s involved with girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) who is in a rock band. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s... cool? Anyway, she’s a devil-may-care kind of girl with no interest in kids and seemingly has nothing in common with Lucas. So the fact they are a couple is just odd. But faster than you can say "break up!" the two rednecks Lucas has hired to find his family discover the two girls creeping around the same cabin they were left in. They are taken to a hospital and in 87 days are allowed to go live with Lucas and Annabel in a house the children’s psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) wants to use for a case study of the kids.
The oldest girl Victoria (Megan Charpentier) is a bit more accustomed to living in the real world as she was about five when things went bad. Her little sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) however, is still a bit lost and spends her nights sleeping under her sister’s bed, eating her sister’s hair, and smiling at something she sees in the corners of the rooms. That mystery person/thing is something she likes to call "Mama." And sooner than we should see her, we are witness to this entity called Mama - a floating haired banshee of a ghost that is hell bent on loving her girls. I think. I’m not sure what she really wanted except I suppose to be a mother.
That’s really the gist of the story. Annabel’s character arc is that she has to learn how to be a loving mother. The scenes when she’s not so comfortable with the role are pretty humorous. But the character borders on intensely unlikeable, so to ask the audience to go with her for the ride is a bit of an issue. The other issues are that the mythology of Mama isn’t fully explained. We find out who she is and what happened to her, but not how she is this supernatural being, what the moth motif represents, or why she moves like an upside down beetle all the time. Why is Lily sometimes entranced by her and other times afraid? What’s up with the cherries she leaves for the kids? And why cherries? Where do they come from? And why does she live in the wall, emerging from a black bleeding vagina-looking mark when she wants to come out and play?
It’s all fairly nonsensical. On the plus side, first time feature director Andres Muschietti does a nice job of directing the children (who are both excellent) and giving the film a spooky look. But by the end of the film, it has morphed into some sort of weird "Pan’s Labyrinth"/Tim Burton hybrid that is not frightening and mostly just confusing. Characters seem to die constantly, but in seconds are back up and moving around. Mama puts people to sleep by touching them, but then they just wake up as soon as she lets go. She likes to suck their souls, but we never know how or why she can do this.
Basically, it’s a mess, but for the first 45 minutes I was with it. But with horror films (and I am a fan of the genre), you need to have airtight mythology or you’re going to lose the audience. Also, CGI monsters are not scary. Aside from a few close-ups of hands and maybe one facial close-up, Mama is all CGI. And you can tell. As a result, she is not scary. And if nothing else, a horror film should be frightening. Judging by the audience’s tepid reaction, this didn’t succeed.