Over recent years Guillermo del Toro, director of numerous delights like Pan’s Labyrinth, has moved onto the producing side of filmmaking with ghostly Mama being his latest venture. The last horror film that del Toro produced was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film that only provoked scares when you realised just how bad it really was. Although by no means an absolute success, Mama is certainly a marked improvement featuring its share of creepy shenanigans and solid performances.
Based on a three minute short, the film tells the tale of two little girls, Victoria and Lily who, thanks to their wonderfully crap dad, are left alone at an abandoned cabin deep in some typically dark and eerie woods. They manage to survive thanks to the presence of a strange and violent spirit-ghost-thing which they touchingly call “Mama”. Five years later the girls are found and brought back to live in civilised society with their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). Unfortunately “Mama” tags along and dishes out hideous mayhem to anyone but the two girls.
The most important question is, unlike Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which featured mentally challenged Gremlins rejects as its monsters, is Mama scary? Although it won’t cause you any sleepless nights terrified that “Mama” is in the closet, however stupid that sounds, it does provide the chills that just about make it a worthwhile trip to the cinema.
The most unnerving events take place in the first half of the film when “Mama” and her motives are generally still shrouded in mystery and everyone seems helpless to stop her. This is helped by the fact that both little girls, now played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, are actually surprisingly watchable and creepy given their age and also manage to bring a certain level of emotional attachment to the film.
Jessica Chastain puts in a reliably strong performance in the lead role as the uncle’s girlfriend Annabel and benefits from actually having a semi-interesting character to portray. Annabel is a punk-rock-slacker of sorts and whilst her development is certainly predictable, her inclusion is refreshingly different to the usual crop of horny teens or morons holding video cameras that appear to populate the majority of modern horror.
Ironically enough though, it is “Mama” herself who signals the films downfall in its second half. Proceedings become infinitely less scary as soon as she is fully revealed in underwhelming CGI whilst her backstory comes across as more tedious than tragic. The script also seems to lose interest as characters erratically come-and-go whilst the plot itself lazily falls back on convenience to advance the story which means that things end disappointingly.
Despite this and the fact that Mama is more spooky than downright scary, there is still a mildly enjoyable viewing experience to be had here which is just about rescued from mediocrity by the strong performances of Chastain and the impressive youngsters.
Mama (2013), directed by Andrés Muschietti, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15.