Talk about a dream come true. You ‘n’ your sis cook up a one-scene horror short, push it out onto that there internet thingy and, before you know it, Hollywood’s on the blower, in the cuddly shape of genre godhead Guillermo del Toro, imploring you to turn said short into a feature. Oh and here’s $15million, Jessica Chastain and Jaime Lannister to do it with.
“That. Will do nicely” is what you’d imagine the response was of Argentinean-born, Barcelona-based director-producer siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti, whose 2008 short film, also entitled Mama, so effectively captured the influential attention of GDT.
But like a fleet-footed young footballer making the step up and signing for one of the game’s genuine giants, any fantastic opportunity also equates to a huge challenge. So does the feature-length Mama represent the Muschiettis meeting that challenge with all the fearless ability of ‘freckled demon’ Wayne Rooney? Or having secured the patronage of del Toro, does their personal fairy tale whimper out with a Franny Jeffers of an ending?
Well, Mama the movie certainly gets off to a flyer, courtesy of an absolutely killer pre-credits prologue (that’s ‘killer’ as in quality and nature of the depicted events).
Commencing in the eye of the economic storm of 2008, we are introduced to Jeffrey Desanges (played by Game of Thrones’ Lannister, aka rising Danish star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a frazzled financier who having just shot dead his business partners and ex-wife, has holed up in a remote cabin with his two young daughters.
There is no doubt as to his intent: he plans to kill the girls too, before turning the gun on himself. But something intervenes at the critical moment, saving 3-year-old Victoria, and dispatching Jeffrey with all the brisk brutality of a Great Plains predator.
It’s an opening sequence which is as effective and enticing as an awesome horror short in its own right, and stands as fine tribute to the dramatic instincts of the Muschiettis, del Toro, and the other individual with a hand in the movie’s scenario – Neil Cross, best-known for penning BBC drama Luther.
That, though, is as good as Mama gets. For having flashed-forward five years, and put the just-found young girls (played by Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier) in the care of their artist uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again, he and himself unsurprisingly making for a more convincing twins combo than the classic DeVito and Schwarzenegger team-up), the suspense and shocks promised by the prologue mostly fail to materialise.
Just like a prior del Toro horror production, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the tension in Mama – such as it is – primarily stems from viewer and child characters alike knowing that a genuine supernatural menace lurks, while the adult characters refuse to believe the increasing onslaught of evidence. Fine. Except that the main upshot of this is that you’re sat there waiting for these numbskulls to catch up with where you’ve been for a hell of a long time.
In the slap-your-forehead tradition of lacklustre horror cinema through the ages, stupidity is a condition which exerts a particularly grim hold over Mama’s male leads, with both Lucas and creepy child psychiatrist Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) taking dim-witted turns to go off rambling through remote woods and spooky cabins in the dead of night, despite both having borne witness to more fishy goings-on than an angling club president.
But that’s more than enough about the brain-dead blokes. Any discussion of Mama really belongs to Annabel, the rocker-cum-reluctant mother-figure played by Jessica Chastain.
Ah, Annabel! Forget any of the poor saps iced by the dark guardian angel which is so jealously possessive of Lucas’s nieces – Annabel is the true victim of this movie; the first great credibility casualty of Chastain’s freshly-minted movie star status.
Because while she was able to successfully subjugate her image of porcelain perfection via an entirely convincing physical transformation for her acclaimed turn in The Help, here the makeover just doesn’t work. Indeed, with her jet-black crop and sleeve tattoos, she looks like Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain on her way to a Halloween bash as Lisbeth Salander and nothing else besides.
Since we’re talking appearances, some black humour does come courtesy of the freakiness of ‘Mama’ herself, a skeletal beanpole played by seven-foot-tall [REC] creature actor Javier Botet – who, in what is one of the film’s silliest moments, collapses into a homicidal blob of hair, sliding round the floor like an especially independently-minded mop-head.
But while the movie does deliver a smattering of non-hair-related scares, those are very much of the single jolt variety, rather than through any sustained tension. The kills, when they come, meanwhile, feel as rushed as a prom night fumble, and only half as satisfying.
Mama is released in the UK on 22 February.