Silver Screen: Mama **1/2
Side Effects is a cool take on the quiet terrors of modern living. Guillermo del Toro prefers more explicit, old-world horror. The director of Mimic, Hellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth has a flair for Lovecraftian beasts and fairytale monsters: dripping insectoid mandibles, horned brutes, and pale, spindly ghouls. He only produced the ghost story Mama, but as with 2009’s Freudian nightmare Splice, his influence is apparent.
Mama’s director is Andres Muschietti, who based the film on his three-minute short of the same name, adapting it into feature length with British TV writer Neil Cross. The result is a genuinely spooky movie that loses momentum near the final act. It’s effective, but not quite up to the standard of its marquee producer.
Why do rock musicians in movies always incline toward eyeliner and moody goth-drudgery? Jessica Chastain stars as Annabel, a bass player whose short black hair and spiky bracelets lets you know she’s never enjoyed a pop hook in her life. She plays in a somber pseudo-punk band while her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) does graphic design.
The couple seems ill-prepared for even conventional parenting, but that doesn’t stop Lucas from fighting for custody of his two nieces, who turn up after living a feral life in the woods for two years after their parents’ murder-suicide. Annabel and Lucas commit to raising the two profoundly troubled children, the youngest of whom (Isabelle Nelisse) walks on all fours, eats with her hands, and speaks limited English.
Both girls consistently refer to a caretaker, Mama, who watched over them during their time in the woods. The psychiatrists claim Mama is just a psychological manifestation, but when Anabelle’s house is plagued by a series of generic supernatural occurrences, she starts to think Mama might not only be real, but that she wants the children back.
This is pretty boilerplate stuff. The mounting evidence of supernatural intervention is mostly a lot of weird sounds and bug infestations, and it eventually leads Anabelle to do some generic, Scooby Doo-style sleuthing to uncover the dark history behind the haunting-- a history that turns out to be pretty standard ghost-story material.
Despite a lack of novelty, though, Mama doles out plenty of atmosphere and a few memorably freaky images to generate some real scares. Some nice shots of Chastain obliviously standing nearby as in the background the girls interact with a shadowy figure that lifts them off the ground is a reminder that Paranormal Activity doesn’t have the market cornered on cheap, effective thrills. And unlike Paranormal Activity, no Guillermo del Toro production is going to keep its monsters in the shadow. When Mama reveals herself, warped, wraithlike, and sludgy, it’s a real jolt.
Events take a turn for the hysterical in the finale, which threatens to tip into unintentional comedy as Mama strains for tragedy, but you can’t accuse the movie of not fully committing to its premise. The early scenes and handful of memorable visuals build up a suspenseful buzz the minor failings can’t kill.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.