Mama has an intriguing premise: Two little girls, abandoned by their father in a cabin in the woods for five years, are found and go to live with their uncle and his girlfriend. But what kept them alive during that time, a demon they call Mama, travels with the girls to their new home — and Mama is very protective of her babies.
It's a shame director Andres Muschietti and executive producer Guillermo Del Toro don't get more out of the story. Mama has all your standard horror movie tricks wrapped in a tidy 100-minute package: Flickering lights, demons appearing out of nowhere, characters moving slowly toward closet doors that have bad things inside them, a malfunctioning flashlight at an inopportune time, etc.
Mama reminds us why it's so hard to make a good horror movie: Because it's all been done before. This is why the first Paranormal Activity was such a phenomenon. It took the found footage premise and elevated it with a verité realism that made all the scares frighteningly genuine. Although the premise is a solid place to begin in Mama, there's little else that makes it unique and worthwhile.
The story goes through the expected motions. Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) have trouble with eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her little sister Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse). Mama visits the girls through the aforementioned closet and strange things happen around the house. Meanwhile, the girls' aunt (Jane Moffat) lingers but serves no real purpose, and a shady doctor (Daniel Kash) examines the girls and makes dubious recommendations. As the story evolves and Mama's origins are revealed, it really hits you how unsatisfying the movie is and how it goes nowhere but downhill after the first 20 minutes.
Mama may also be remembered as the movie that cost Jessica Chastain an Oscar (the awards are Feb. 24; she's nominated for Best Actress for Zero Dark Thirty). Technically it shouldn't matter, but in Hollywood you're only as good as your last project, and any voter who sees this isn't going to be impressed with her work. (If you don't think this happens, I refer you to 2006 when Eddie Murphy was the favorite for Dreamgirls, but, after his disastrous Norbit opened, he lost the Oscar to Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine.)
Not that Chastain is bad, mind you. This is a limited role that has a predictable transition, and she handles herself respectably. But she's also overshadowed by Charpentier and Nelisse, who do things girls are rarely asked to do on screen (e.g. quickly crawl on all fours like an animal) and handle them exceptionally well.
There are no action scenes per se, just moments of scares and escapes, some of which are more effective than others. The visual effects vary from being nicely done to looking cheesy. The acting, scares, and visual effects kind of sum up the movie: Some of it works, but not nearly enough to make Mama worth recommending.