Guillermo del Toro may, yet again, have his big ol’ name plastered over a project that he’s ‘executive producer’ of, but Mama does, at least, share his sense of fairy tale aesthetic – if not his gripping, well-paced sense of storytelling.
Opening with ‘Once upon a time’ scribbled in childish handwriting, the legend paves way for a tale of two little girls abducted by their crazed, murderous father, Jeffrey (Game Of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Having lost all their money, killed their mother, crashed their car in some woods and taken refuge in a dirty, abandoned cabin, he contemplates his ultimate stage of horror. And it’s then, just as a gun is raised to a golden head, that we meet Mama – a maternal spectre who wisps through the air like dust and smoke. It’s five years after these events, however, when the girls are taken in by Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas (also played by Jamie Lannister) and his ‘rocker’ girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), that the story really begins.
It’s just a shame that it’s one that promises a lot more than what it actually delivers: a Ring-style mystery which, come the denouement, isn’t as interesting as the film seems to think it is. If anything, it feels rather dull.
Backed by del Toro after seeing the 2008 short film of the same name, it is down to original director, Andres Muschietti, to flesh out his three-minute scene of claustrophobic horror into a feature-length film. A challenge, certainly, but one that he does rise to with sporadic moments of greatness. Mama herself, for instance, is a nightmare come flesh – an entity who commands the screen whenever we’re unfortunate enough to spot her ghostly, contorted form. And that’s before you actually see the way she walks…
It is genuinely terrifying, but a horrifying hook that feels wasted as Maschietti sticks safely to horror cliché – with contrived use of jump shots, darkness and brooding music all tying down a film which feels like it could soar beyond such cheap tricks.
Still, Mama will stay with you – whether you like it or not.