'Mama' Review: Wild Child Horror Missing that Maternal Touch

'Mama' Review: Wild Child Horror Missing that Maternal Touch

If Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent from Zero Dark Thirty could address the actress’ character from the new horror film Mama the exchange wouldn’t be pretty.

What are you thinking? You’re a two-time Oscar nominee wallowing in recycled scares and shoddy storytelling? Did your agent put you up to this?

Mama, “presented” by Guillermo del Toro, starts with a trippy premise but doesn’t have a clue what to do with it.

Chastain plays Annabel, a goth rocker rocker who becomes the guardian of two young girls when her beau (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) wins custody rights to them. A complicated prologue tells us how the girls’ parents were killed, leaving them all alone to fend for themselves without parental supervision.

Now, the girls’ uncle and Annebel must try to undo years of damage and neglect with only the help of a kindly psychologist (Daniel Kash) to guide them.

Turns out the girls weren’t exactly alone all that time. A mysterious force they call “mama” stood beside them, nurturing them in its own demonic way.  

Mama’s tortured back story quickly gives way to a tale teeming with intrigue, and who better than Chastain to prove not all horror movies are stuck with mediocre leads? Yet nearly everything that follows feels cribbed from recent shock films, from the twitchy presence of the title character to a soundtrack which gets goosed every time a scare is in order.

First-time director Andrés Muschietti maneuvers through the familiar beats in a way that will keep you squirming in your seat all the same. The screenplay simply doesn’t connect what should be obvious dots. The fact that two naive guardians are given these children is absurd. While the oldest, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) shows signs of shaking off her past, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) is as feral as an alley cat.

The maternal bond between Annabel and the girls should clearly be the emotional core of Mama, especially given the compelling turns by the film’s young stars. Plus, here’s a woman with no interest in children, a rocker chick ill-suited for domesticity who is ripe to discover her motherly instincts. But the film won’t allow her to grow in that role, or to bond with her challenging charges.

That leaves a story as cold as a grave, and when the mysteries behind Mama take shape we’re forced to watch a CGI parade that diminishes the few genuine goose bumps raised up until then.