A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
Like too many horror films these days, “Mama” boasts some intriguing storytelling ideas, sets an often genuinely sinister atmosphere but prompts unintentional laughter and reflexive eye-rolling with its contrivances, jump scares and sudden lapses in common sense on the part of its characters.
With a finely developed lead turn by Jessica Chastain, the rare Hollywood it-girl who lives up to the hype, and a daring ending that will at least get viewers talking, even if they hate it, director Andrés Muschietti almost pulls off quite the creepy coup with his debut feature, which expands on his 2008 short film of the same name.
Executive producer Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labrinyth”) leaves his indelible mark on the film, with its grotesquely beautiful aesthetic and melding of psychological and supernatural terror, but “Mama” simply doesn’t have the depth or style of his best work.
The setup is chilling and timely: As the stock market crashes in 2008, a desperate moneyman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) kills two of his colleagues and his estranged wife and flees with his daughters, Victoria, 3, and Lilly, 1.
After their car skids off the snowy highway and crashes in the woods, the despairing father takes shelter with his children in a spooky abandoned cabin. It’s clear he plans to kill the girls and then himself, but before he can shoot Victoria, a mysterious being violently stops him. With her glasses broken, the older girl can’t quite make out who or what helped her, and the younger is too young to understand.
Five years later, the father’s artist brother, Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his punk-rocker girlfriend Annabel (“Zero Dark Thirty” Oscar contender Chastain with short black hair, a Misfits T-shirt and enough dark eyeliner to outline a U.S. map) keep paying a ragtag search team to look for his missing family. One fateful day, the team finds Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) filthy, feral and scrabbling on all fours but alive in the isolated cabin.
Although the children, particularly Lilly, act more like wild animals than humans, Lucas and Annabel find themselves in an unlikely custody battle with the girls’ rich and imperious Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat). Sensing a career-making case study on his hands, sisters’ scheming psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) conveniently offers to put Lucas, Annabel and the girls up in a nice suburban home free of charge if he can have exclusive and unlimited access to the children.
It’s not the only convenient plot contrivance that moves the ghost story forward while reminding you that no matter how eerie it gets, it’s just a movie.
It shouldn’t take a doctorate degree to figure out that the “Mama” whom the children credit with raising them those missing years isn’t just some figment of their imaginations. Ominous flocks of moths, strange noises in the girls’ closet and oozy black holes in the walls are telltale signs that Victoria and Lilly weren’t alone and that the fierce being that watched over them has followed them to suburbia.
When a convenient coma puts Lucas in the hospital, Chastain gets to show her stuff, convincingly morphing her sullenly self-centered rocker grrrl into a protective mother figure. The child actors also give credible turns as the lost little girls trying to adapt to a more normal life.
But their performances can’t quite anchor Muschietti wildly uneven first film. Unfortunately, he counteracts moments of filmmaking brilliance — particularly, a lingering, elegantly executed shot of Annabel busily doing chores while Lilly enthusiastically plays tug-o’-war with a companion who mostly stays tantalizing just out of frame — with examples of sheer horror movie stupidity — notably, at least two seemingly bright characters’ decisions to venture into the frightening remote woods in the dead of night.