x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mama undermined by cheap scares

This psychosomatic childhood trauma tale is unceremoniously dumped when the action turns into a hide-and-seek monster movie.

In Mama, two sisters try to adapt to life with their aunt and uncle after being raised by a mysterious creature. Courtesy Toma 78
In Mama, two sisters try to adapt to life with their aunt and uncle after being raised by a mysterious creature. Courtesy Toma 78

Director: Andrés Muschietti

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Daniel Kash

***

It's difficult to recognise Jessica Chastain in this Guilermo del Toro-produced horror film. Besides the obvious physical difference (her flowing red hair has been cropped), the Oscar-nominated actress has turned away from the intellectual thespian roles that have made her famous in favour of playing feisty Annabel, a rock chick armed with an electric guitar and carefree attitude.

The director Andrés Muschietti drew del Toro's attention when he made the short film Mama in 2008. For his feature film debut, the germ of the short has been reworked and the action moved to the US. During the economic crash of 2008, a disgruntled businessman kills his wife and tries to kill his two daughters. The children are saved by an insect-like monster.

Five years later, the two girls are found in a remote cabin and a bitter custody battle ensues between their paternal uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and maternal aunt (Jane Moffat). A scheming psychoanalyst (Daniel Kash) manipulates the system so that the kids live with their uncle and Annabel, which enables the doctor to keep the children under close observation. The psychoanalyst is the only man that believes young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) when she says that she and her sister were reared by an insect-like creature they call Mama.

It's intriguing to watch Annabel, who would be the first to admit that she's not exactly mother material, adapt to the demands of parenthood while she is unaware there is a monster in the house. For her part, Chastain is fast becoming the modern-day Meryl Streep: excelling no matter the role or the genre.

But the film's male characters are badly underwritten. Lucas is quickly sidelined when he's hospitalised by Mama and the psychoanalyst is the typical sleuth used to help explain the incredulous plot jumps.

The narrative works best as a psychosomatic childhood trauma tale but this aspect is unceremoniously dumped when the action turns into a hide-and-seek monster movie with cheap scares.

As the story makes awkward leaps from psychodrama to effects-laden monster scenes, you can almost hear the spectre of the financiers screaming: "We need more money shots." They really didn't.