Jessica Chastain goes full goth and learns the pains of motherhood in Andy Muschietti's scare-neutral horror yarn.
After Wall Street financier Jeffrey Desanges (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes postal on two work colleagues and his own wife, he and his young daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) vanish in the woods.
Five years later, the two girls are discovered, alive but wild, in an abandoned cabin. Jeffrey's twin brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) is keen to take them in, even if his rock-chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) is hardly wiling mother material.
As things go bump in the night according to the demands of genre, Lucas, Annabel and the girls' psychiatrist Dr Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) all start wondering if the figure – known as 'Mama' – whom the girls invented as a way to survive alone in the wilderness might be real after all.
We, however, are in less doubt, as Andy Muschietti's feature debut, developed from his 2008 short of the same name, reveals the presence of its overprotective spectre from very early in the piece, leaving little scope for the ambiguity on which truly uncanny storytelling relies.
A key motif in Mama is the tug-of-war. In a very effective early scene, Lilly is shown giggling joyously as she pulls at one end of a sheet in the bedroom that she shares with Victoria, only for the camera to reveal that her sister is elsewhere and Lilly's tugging opponent, obscured by the doorframe, is an uninvited guest (as the door closes, we glimpse the feet of Lilly, still giggling, impossibly suspended several metres in the air).
Later, in the film's literally cliff-hanging climax, Annabel, whose forearm bears a prominent octopus tattoo as a signifier of her tenacity, will engage in a desperate game of tug-of-war against the mother of all revenants (who is also, maybe, Annabel's dark double), with Lilly's very life on the line.
Unfortunately the tug-of-war also serves as a metaphor for the faults of a film that strains under the pressure of being pulled in so many different directions at once that it quickly loses its centre of balance. A full panoply of gothic motifs and horror clichés – feral foundlings, identical twins, cherry pip mountains, conspiratorial children, a cabin in the woods, creepy dolls, dodgy light fixtures, distorted lullabies, ubiquitous moths, long-haired phantom femmes – is trundled out and deftly handled by Muschietti, but the whole always seems less than the sum of its creepy parts, as coherent plotting and characterisation are sacrificed to the need for a random jumpscare every ten minutes.
An unwillingness to embrace fully the horror of children in peril may have helped Mama dodge an 18 certificate, but it also forces the film into a rather sanitised corner. Here the spaces left vacant by anything too harrowing are quickly filled by the shrill emotions and over-the-top postures of fairy tale melodrama, with Mama herself (wonderfully embodied by 'movement expert' Javier Botet) a bendy, J-horror inflected variant on the classic child-snatching witch in the woods.
As the storyline and sets become ever more baroque and overdetermined, sense soon goes straight out the window along with the conflicted Lilly, and characters behave in ways that simply beggar belief, not least Dr Dreyfuss, who does not regard single-handedly exploring portals into other dimensions as too much of an interdisciplinary stretch from his professed field – of paediatrics.
Maternity, madness, abandonment and loss have already been covered by films like Dark Water, The Forgotten, Flightplan and The Tall Man, but Mama dissipates the impact of these themes not only by failing to ground them in anything real or plausible, but also by allowing any subtext they might have to get lost amongst the trees.
Having previously incarnated the spirit of motherhood in The Tree Of Life and Take Shelter, Jessica Chastain might seem perfectly cast as the heroine and reluctant mother. Yet boldly divested here of the red locks that have become her signature, Chastain sports a dyed-black crop, grungy torn jeans and a Misfits T-shirt as inadequate compensation for Annabel's lack of depth. Quite simply, the actress has little to do here besides look concerned and occasionally scream.
Still, if the overall narrative becomes a mess of clashing styles and receding substance, perhaps there are just enough freaky frights to be found in the film's individual scenes, which are, to be fair, very well directed.
Rumours of genuine scariness.
Mothers, moths, myths – all seemingly thrown together by someone on meths.
Rhymes with melodrama? Or with bummer?