Don’t Go in the Closet
by Glenn Lovell
The new Guillermo del Toro production “Mama” begins reassuringly with “Once upon a time …” This, of course, cues us that much of what follows will fall under the heading fairy tale. And knowing del Toro ‒ who directed “Pan’s Labyrinth” and produced last year’s “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” ‒ this beddy-bye story will be more than a little Grimm around the borders.
Actually, I could have stood it to be a lot more grim. Del Toro and new protégé director Andrés Muschietti (filling out a 2008 short of the same title) are at their creepy best when dealing with the corporeal rather than the supernatural, with fright grounded in the reality of two little girls who, despite their cherubic looks, may be very bad seeds indeed. This stuff is as nasty and unsettling as anything I’ve seen since “Orphan” and “Case 39,” two earlier films about adoptions gone horribly awry.
Then, unfortunately ‒ or inevitably, given the current popularity of the paranormal ‒ Muschietti veers into Harry Potter territory: he hauls out those inky, amorphous wraiths that swoop and dive like something unleashed from the Ark of the Covenant. And suddenly what was all-too-credible now seems oh-so-silly.
“Mama” opens promisingly enough. A ruined financier who has off’d his wife and business partners flees to the snowy forest with his two infant daughters. They take refuge in a seemingly abandoned cabin. The occupant, we soon learn, is the ghost of a grieving mother only too happy to orphan the girls and take them in.
Flash forward five years. Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) are finally located. Only now they’re more like feral cats that leap and hiss and crawl about on all fours like the kids in Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” and Isidro Ortiz’s “Shiver.” After a few weeks psychiatric evaluation, the girls are deemed house broken and adoptable ‒ by their guilt-ridden uncle Lucas (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) and his less than encouraging girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). As house pets, they’re about as cuddly as king cobras.
“Mama” is at its scariest when Muschietti dallies in the shadows and employs Val Lewton-like shock cuts to make the girls fairly explode into the frame. And once it’s established that they’re mountain-goat nimble, we never know where they’re going to turn up next ‒ on a counter, the refrigerator, in a packing crate. The patter of little feet hasn’t been this unnerving since Chucky had the run of the house.
Annabel is the first to hear more guttural sounds coming from the heating grates. Can the imaginary “Mama” be real? Lilly’s vacant smiles and the attention paid a bedroom closet arouse suspicions that someone or something has taken up residence … in the walls.
“Mama” could have been so much better as an exercise in the power of suggestion, a film dedicated to that choking fear of the unseen. Del Toro and Muschietti at their best channel Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and Jack Clayton’s arty adaptation “The Innocents.” It’s only when they begin to explain things away ‒ via the obligatory snoop psychiatrist (Daniel Kash), the guardian witch’s tragic backstory ‒ that a strong sense of CG-laced déjà vu sets in. Not helping matters is Chastain’s goth musician-surrogate mom. She’s isn’t very convincing in either capacity, probably because she can’t hide the fact that she knows that we know she “ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”
MAMA ✮✮1/2 With Jessica Chastain, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier. Directed by Andrés Muschietti; scripted by Neil Cross and Barbara and Andres Muschietti. 100 min. Rated R (for violence, profanity, intense horror)