"Once upon a time," reads the title card that kicks off Mama, a supernatural horror film by first time feature director Andy Muschietti, which is being sold under the imprimatur of a much more famous name, Guillermo del Toro, who serves as executive producer/mentor/godfather on this project.
That opening clues in to the fact the Mama seeks to tap into the fairy tale, the primal source for spooky tales, a very old, tried-and-true form of storytelling. Mama is an expansion of a 2008 short that was very much a calling card for its director, who honed his filmmaking chops during 15 years of making commercials. The short gained the attention of del Toro, who eventually shepherded this film and took an active role in shaping it into the film that we have now.
The result, as befits any work that bears del Toro's stamp, has some superficial affinities to his own films, most pertinently in this case Pan's Labyrinth. The prominent role of children in that film, the mining of the fairy tale form, and especially the creature design, are echoed to an extent in Mama. So certainly, this film has a promising pedigree, which ultimately gives us a film that is reasonably well-made and often stylish looking.
Unfortunately, the effect of all this is greatly weakened by a scenario which deviates very little from the well-trod path of movies of its ilk - loud music cues, visual fake-outs meant to startle the audience out of their chairs, a tortured backstory of a ghost with unfinished business, extraneous supporting characters with no other function except to meet their demise by its resident creepy-crawly, etc., etc., etc. In genre terms, this is very old wine in a slightly new-ish bottle. The utter predictability of it all prevents Mama from being much more than a rather routine horror film.
Mama begins with an acknowledgement of the current bad economy, following Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), after financial distress has driven him to off his wife, kidnap his little girls, and drive them to a cabin, where he plans to finish the job by doing himself in, along with his daughters. But he is prevented from doing so by you-know-who (see title). Cut to five years later, and the girls are found alone in the cabin, living as feral wild children. These two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), are cleaned up and put in the care of their uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his rocker chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
Let's leave aside the utter implausibility of a couple with no discernible source of income being given custody of two girls with major psychological issues, living rent-free in a house owned by an institute that includes a certain Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who wants to study the girls for God knows what purpose. We don't look to movies like Mama with expectations of documentary-like realism - suspension of disbelief and all that. And sure enough, it isn't long before the thing that took care of the girls for five years turns out to be most definitely not in their heads, and starts wreaking havoc in the house, not taking too kindly to strange people becoming these girls' new loved ones.
Mama herself, when she is finally revealed in her full glory after the teasing glimpses throughout, is indeed an impressive looking creature, best described by Muschietti as "a Modigliani painting left to rot." The creature is embodied by seven-foot-tall Spanish actor Javier Botet (REC), who has unusually elastic physical characteristics, making him well-suited to play this sinuous, would-be terrifying creature.
But once again, for this viewer, any sort of potential scares are dampened by the fact that we've been down this road way, way too many times before. The one wrinkle is a denouement that does go in a somewhat unexpected direction, but by then, it's too little, too late to prevent Mama from being yet another missed opportunity to take the horror film genre in a truly novel direction.
Mama opens wide across North America on Friday, November 18. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.