Despite some superficial attempts to be otherwise, Mama is your standard compendium of haunted-house film clichés: jump scares, beckoning noises, and apparitions that apparently find some measure of satisfaction hovering behind the unsuspecting protagonist. And what would any horror movie be without the egregiously stupid desire to open doors behind which one knows full well something rotten is lurking? Curiosity is one thing. But entering a darkened room unarmed is a good way to thin out the gene pool. How refreshing it would be to see someone approach a closet door, reconsider, and come back with reinforcements.
Mama begins with its pedal to the medal — rather literally, as a grieving father, who’s just offed his wife, speeds his two toddler girls along an icy road. Over an embankment they go, then taking refuge in a run-down, abandoned cabin. As the weeping, demented dad is about to shoot the older of the siblings, something supernatural intercedes.
Five years later, the girls are finally found — in the same cabin, having survived on a steady diet of cherries and protected by this ghost, whom they call “Mama.” Somehow, despite being under its care, the girls have become frightfully feral creatures. The way they skitter across the floor is the hands-down creepiest thing about the movie.
The girls are remanded to the care of their uncle, a starving artist who lives with a loyal, bass-thumping girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, sporting heavy mascara, a Misfits T-shirt and jet-black rocker grrl hair). Once the ghost gets the better of the uncle, it's up to Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) to be the sole caregiver and face Mama on her own.
Mama keeps the cheap scares coming a steady pace, holding to the theory that if one “boo” is money, 10 times that must be a gold mine. But the questions follow just as quickly to dull the effect, such as: Why are a baby’s remains being kept in a government records warehouse? Why does a small-town psychiatrist have access to a large two-story home that is used for keeping patients under surveillance? And why would a ghost in torment, one that has the ability to move freely about the town, and has powers beyond that of any living human, keep itself relegated to holes in the wall?
Whatever cred executive producer Guillermo del Toro has earned with films like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, he’s not doing his bona fides any favors as the guiding hand behind junk like this. His auteurship is evident in the film’s mixing of plant and human forms, but it’s not to any great effect.
Mama does have a few effective sequences, most notably one where the younger of the siblings is playing with the ghost. The camera, set up just outside the girls’ bedroom, looks simultaneously into the room (half-obscured by the door) and down the upstairs hallway. It’s a neat, chilling scene — something Mama could have used more of.