Mama is a perfectly serviceable film for the usually dry winter months. It is based on a short Spanish horror film by Andres Muschietti that caught the attention of modern horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro, who produced a feature-length remake of the film for Muschietti to direct. A product that worked amazingly as a short subject is bound to lose some of its magic when stretched out to 100 minutes, and Mama is no exception. The plot has large gaps in logic, and the titular villain is shown far too early and far too often to remain scary for the entire film. However, the film's mile-a-minute scares and solid performances salvage it from the pits of dump month dreck.
The best thing about this film is easily the performance by leading lady Jessica Chastain. Sporting tattoos up her arm and a short, punk-rock hairdo, Chastain's Annabel is a far cry (in appearance, at least) from the usual adult horror heroine. This wouldn't have meant squat if they had cast a subpar talent in the role, but there's a reason why Chastain has been nominated for two Oscars over the course of her short career. Mama is Chastain's show from start to finish, and she brings gravitas and solid dramatic chops that she uses to make us care about and root for her character even when the plot is going off the rails. Not content to be left in Chastain's dust is the young Megan Charpentier as Victoria, the elder of the two young girls at the center of the story. She evolves from a precocious young girl to a feral wild child and back without missing a beat, and the story is all the stronger for it. Rounding out the main cast is Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who I didn't realize wasn't American until I looked him up on Wikipedia. He plays two characters, the brothers Jeffrey (who dies early on) and Lucas, and until the credits rolled I thought they had been played by two different actors; props to him for being convincing in both roles.
Where the film starts to fall apart is in the writing department. Heavily padded, this film is packed with unnecessary characters that serve only to get killed off by Mama. To the film's credit, their scenes are often quite tense, with Muschietti possessing a very able hand behind the camera when it comes to building tension. Even when the plot was lagging, I was kept engaged and scared throughout. However, these characters are largely undeveloped, flat, and do little to drive the story forward. Furthermore, the film forgets that, sometimes, less is more when it comes to building tension. We see Mama quite clearly near the start of the film, making the reveal of what she looked like a lot less shocking. The special effects used to bring her to "life" are very good, a nice mix of practical effects and CGI, but we see way too much of her for her to maintain her menace. The scariest scenes were the ones where we don't see her or only catch brief glimpses of her, such as the one where Lily is fighting with someone over a blanket and we slowly start to realize that it isn't Victoria who is tugging on the other end.
Mama's motivations, however, were the real killer for this film's plot. Without spoiling anything, Mama had five years to pull off her evil plan, and could have done so at any point, so why does she wait until Annabel and Lucas found the girls to do it? Leaving the theater, that stuck out in my head and badly damaged the film.Score: 3 out of 5
The plot collapses the second you think about it, but it makes up for it with a high fright factor and great acting that sells the characters even when the writing is letting them down. Worth a matinee, but don't go in expecting a classic.