"Mama is a flawed effort, yet nevertheless signals Muschietti as a talent worth following"

Mama is Argentinian director Andrés Muschietti’s feature film debut, developed from his 2008 short film of the same name. The movie does a great job of getting the facts straight from the beginning, and within the opening sequence we instantly know, without a doubt, that we’re in for a horror shocker, then the credits start rolling: with Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) as executive producer, and Hollywood “it girl” Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as leading star, Muschietti’s team promises this won’t be your usual fright flick, but a quality one. However these promises are kept only to a certain extent.

After killing his business partners and estranged wife, the deranged Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) takes his two young daughters on a crazy car ride along a snowy road, with the intention of killing both of them and himself. The three survive a crash against a tree and end up in the all-too-typical cabin in the woods, where a dark and mysterious figure saves the two girls and kills their father. Five years later, the two girls are found in the cabin, still alive and in a mostly feral state, and are entrusted to their uncle Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) and his reluctant girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). Little do they know that the shadowy figure, who the girls call ‘Mama’, is following them.

This recipe for frights receives an exceedingly formulaic execution. Horror is arguably the film genre that quotes itself the most, and Mama makes no exception, though Muschietti renounces the gore and shows a penchant for more old fashioned scare techniques. We are treated to a series of liftings, from the inevitable The Exorcist and The Shining, through to The Ring and Alien, to multiple Hitchcock borrowings (Rear Window, Psycho). The scary moments are often easy to anticipate and are helped in no small measure by the sound editing, with the usual trick of sudden loud noises that is certainly more effective in a cinema room than in most home-viewing situations.

The film is partially saved by another fine performance by Chastain, this time as the tattooed punk chick Annabel. This is another chapter in the actress’ one-movie-after-another tour de force, which catapulted her from anonymity to Hollywood’s A-list in a little more than one year where she managed to cover virtually the whole cinematic spectrum, from deep art-house fares like The Tree of Life to genre-flicks such as this one.

Although Chastain manages to convey poignancy as her character - going from being a selfish wannabe rockstar to experiencing motherly feelings towards the two children she’s been saddled with - the story often loses focus and sometimes borders on the ridiculous, especially in its revelatory ending.

Mama is a flawed effort, yet nevertheless signals Muschietti as a talent worth following.