The Jessica Chastain horror film “Mama” is plenty scary—as long as you’re submerged in director Andrés Muschietti’s chilly, elegant vision. Once the lights come up and you return to the real world, however, the script quickly reveals its sloppiness.
After killing his two business partners and his wife then crashing his car, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) drags his two daughters deep into the woods and stumbles upon an abandoned cabin, filled with enough mid-century modern furniture to make the Eames museum pant. He plans to murder them as well—though why he didn’t do so at home remains unasked and unanswered—but before he can, a creature swoops in and kills him, leaving Victoria and Lily all alone until they’re found five years later, grown filthy and feral from years of caretaking by a ghost.
Somehow, their father’s twin brother and his punk wife (Chastain) gain custody of them, while psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) continues to monitor their recovery. Before long, silhouettes are glimpsed in windows, moths begin fluttering throughout the house, and violence erupts, all set to a crash-bang-boom sound design that telegraphs scares well in advance. Moments of genuine terror are repeatedly undercut by Muschietti lingering on the children’s anti-social behavior; staying tense is difficult when one is watching a 6-year-old gnawing on paper towels.
Chastain, touted as cinema’s next big star, is here reduced to crankiness alternated with wide-eyed terror. Her icy scenes with the girls she doesn’t want complement the most interesting aspect of “Mama,” the souring of mother love. That the ghost has a lengthy backstory involving losing her own child isn’t a shock, but the filmmakers’ decision to make her into a character in the film’s final third is a disappointing one.
The best scares can be found in the usual tropes: closet doors left ajar; scrabbling sounds under the bed; and the terror of realizing that you don’t know with whom you share your house. But then there are the other tropes: the visits to abandoned houses in the middle of the night; the reluctance to clue anyone else in on the odd occurrences; and a reliance on nightmares to keep the frights coming.
Sustaining terror scared is difficult, however, when the screenwriters (Muschiettei, Barbara Muschietti, and Neil Cross) eschew creating an internal logic in favor of doing whatever it takes to work in another creepy-crawly moment. Along the way, they sacrifice making a movie that will leave lingering goosebumps for one that you’ll be laughing about by the time you get home.
Critic’s Score: B
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Casting by Jen Rudin
Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Megan Charpentier