A crazed father abducts his two young daughters, taking them to a cabin in the woods where he is killed by a strange entity. Five years later the girls are found, but ‘Mama’ — the thing from the woods — comes back to civilisation with them and is homicidally jealous of their affections.
In 2008, Argentinian siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti made Mamá, a brief (three minutes) short in which two little girls are menaced by a wild-haired, kink-necked spectre. That attracted the interest of Guillermo del Toro — no wonder, since childhood ghosts are what he likes most — who has executive-produced this feature-length expansion, which the Muschiettis separately directed and produced and together co-scripted (with assistance from British writer Neil Cross, creator of Luther).
With currently busy Jessica Chastain in a change-of-pace role (a black-haired pixie-punk rock chick who doesn’t want kids but winds up as a surrogate mother), Mama is a cut above your basic spookfest shocker (you know, Insidious or The Possession), though it overlaps a little too much with the likes of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (another del Toro production) and The Woman In Black (which also had a child-menacing, mad mother ghost). It’s easier to set up a single, inexplicable horror scene than it is to string together a bunch of them into a coherent narrative, and Mama doesn’t quite manage it. The opening falls back on that ancient device of the criminal listening to radio news reports of his misdeeds to fill in backstory, and there’s a drawn-out strand about a double-dealing shrink obsessed with a 19th-century ghost that serves only to leave convenient plot information on a laptop to be accessed when it’s explanation time.
Mama also shows its hand too early and plainly. The ghost appears before the credits, so we know what the girls’ problem is while their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Chastain) catch up. The smaller, less obvious ‘boo’ moments in the first half make for bigger jumps than the bells-and-whistles manifestations (and screams and scratches) that come later, and reduce the title menace to an attention-seeking effect. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse, the haunted semi-feral sisters, are great, and Chastain brings that Vera Farmiga-in-Orphan touch of class, but it feels more like a programme of shorts than a feature.
Despite story problems and overuse of good effects, this has enough shocks and screams to make a decent thrill ride.